Lacrosse player lives life to the fullest

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AVE MARIA, Fla. - Valeria Tkacik is a standout lacrosse player for Ave Maria University in Florida. By all accounts, she is a leader on and off the field.

Tkacik was named to the National Women's Lacrosse League South Regional Team and is considered a talented athlete who loves playing lacrosse, basketball, golf, track, soccer and flag football.

A good student in the classroom, Tkacik also was accepted as a Mother Teresa Scholar at Ave Maria. She has contributed service time for charity work, including a mission trip to Harlem in New York City where she served the poor and homeless. Also, Tkacik recently got a haircut and donated 12 inches of her hair to Art of Wigs to help cancer patients. As a freshman, she served as a representative on Ave Maria's student government. For her sophomore year, Tkacik will serve on the student activities board and was selected for Ave Maria's media internship program.

And if those achievements aren't enough, Tkacik also is a motivational speaker, helping patients who are struggling with the loss of limbs and providing them encouragement. She can relate to their story. What makes Tkacik's life especially inspiring is that she achieves so much with only one arm.

Tkacik was adopted from Russia at 18 months old. Her parents say they were meant to be a family right from the start.

"We look at Valeria as we are blessed," said her mother, Anne, clearly proud. "It was the right direction to go in our lives. We always look back and think, she wasn't born to us, but it was perfect harmony between the three of us."

Tkacik was born with a condition called congenital shoulder disarticulation, meaning she has no left arm. Workers at the children's home where she was born said the condition was the result of complications from the kidney medication her birth mother was taking during her pregnancy.

But being born with only one arm hasn't stopped Tkacik from living a life more active than most.

Her parents decided early on that words like "handicapped" and "disability" would not be part of their home vocabulary.

"We knew with her situation that we wanted to make sure Valeria had the confidence needed to do the things she wants to do," her father, John, said in an interview with SportsUp Today, an online magazine that focuses on Catholic athletes. "Valeria knew she had to work harder than others and she did, that's the kind of girl she is. Valeria has a lot of self-confidence and we can't hold her back."

Young Valeria thrived on that support. "My parents always believed that they would never set any limitations on me," she said. "They always encouraged me to do my best. My parents have given me everything."

From the time Tkacik was very young, she loved playing with toy horses, and one day, she asked to try horseback riding.

John said, "She was 4 when she started 'pony camp,' and I remember she was in a riding show her first year. That smile on her face just stole the judges' hearts. You can never look to Valeria to see which team is losing or winning because she's always smiling. Valeria enjoys everything she does, she enjoys life."

She went on to take five years of dance classes including hip-hop and tap, played the trumpet in elementary school and was in the school's drama club. She also got involved in sports, which Tkacik says helped build her confidence.

"Growing up as a little girl, I never saw my life as any different and I don't think my friends did either," she said.

Still, Tkacik says people often are curious about how she's able to handle life with one arm.

"People always asked me growing up how I am able to tie my shoes, how do I put my hair up in a ponytail or how I am able to play lacrosse," she said. "I just say that I just do it. Even though I only have one arm, God has given me so many other beautiful gifts. It's been a real honor and blessing to please the Lord with all the events and activities I've been doing, and I think He is pleased with how I handled my situation growing up."

Basketball was the first team sport Tkacik excelled in, including a championship in her junior year of high school. She never played lacrosse until her sophomore year. "I loved guarding the cage," she said. "At Ave Maria, I also got to play midfield and absolutely loved it." Tkacik's speed allow her to be a diverse player on the field.

Tkacik said she always knew that God had a plan for her, and the entire Tkacik family points to Valeria's strong faith as the reason for her success.

Her parents said their daughter learned her Catholic faith attending Catholic schools "but also living in the faith at home," where the family would say rosaries together and she would remind them it "was almost time to pray." Her prompting made her parents feel they wanted to "do it that much more."

"God led my parents to Russia to come pick me up," Tkacik said. "I always had joy in my heart, and I always want to give back to God because without Him, I don't know where I would be."

Tkacik, a political science major, said she would love to get into politics in the future as she also completed an internship with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in Washington.

"I just think it's fascinating," she said. Tkacik has an interest in attending law school following her undergraduate studies and also is considering pursuing a career in the media.

Ultimately, Tkacik said she just wants to live the life she's been called to live.

"Actions speak louder than words, and I just love my life," she said. "My goal is to continue to live a Christ-like life."

Xavier writes for SportsUp Today, an online magazine based on Arizona that focuses on Catholic athletes.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015