Thursday, July 7, 2016

'Do what you love'

By Megan Jones

This summer, 17-year-old Jeffrey Beausoleil (centre) will crawl through mud, scale eight-foot walls and jump over fire. The young athlete has become a regular competitor in Spartan races—running competitions in which participants battle their way through grueling obstacle courses.

Unlike most participants, Jeffrey was born without his right hand and leg. Still, the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., resident has completed six Spartan races since he began training last year, including Sprint races (5+ kilometres) and Super races (12+ kilometres). This summer, he’s aiming for the Trifecta—by attempting to complete a Beast race (19+ kilometres) on top of a Sprint and Super.

Here, Jeffrey weighs in on building confidence, dealing with bullies and why teenagers need to see more role models with disabilities.

BLOOM: Have you always been an athlete?

Jeffrey Beausoleil:
I played a lot of sports in my childhood, at school and with friends—handball, soccer, volleyball, badminton. But I never participated anything as intense as a Spartan race.

BLOOM: Right. Most people would find a timed obstacle course extremely challenging. I know I couldn’t do it. What drew you to this kind of challenge?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: There were two things. First, the Shriner’s Hospital for Children approached me and asked me to participate as a way to raise funds for them. I said yes right away because they’ve done so much for me. They taught me how to walk. How to use a pen. How to do everyday tasks. And I’m very grateful for that.

The second motivation was more personal. I’d played enough sports like soccer, and was tired of games with two nets and a ball. So boring. I wanted to try something different, something more challenging. The Spartan race, with its obstacles and its finish line felt like a good idea.

BLOOM: Raising funds is an admirable goal. But do you also get anything out of the races on a personal level?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: When you’re on the course, you cycle through a lot of emotions. Sometimes you feel happy and other times you think to yourself, “Why did I sign up for this?” But when I finish the race I’m always in a great mood. Most of the time I cry. I think having a disability makes the whole thing more emotional for me. I feel a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the races I always think, “I can’t believe I actually did it.”

BLOOM: What sort of adaptations do you make on the course?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: Every time I race I ask family or friends to come with me. You need to use two hands for some obstacles, so I can’t do them alone. During my first race, my best friend Michel helped me with those.

People at Spartan races are very open-minded. I’ve never seen anyone doubt me me at the race. We’re like a big family when we run. Everyone believes in and supports one another.

BLOOM: What about outside of the racecourse? How do people typically treat you when they first see you in public?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: Some people are scared of me. Especially younger people, I can tell. Older people ask me a lot of questions—about how I got my disability or what kinds of tasks I can and can’t do. Curiosity and fear are the typical reactions I get.

BLOOM: Have you ever felt isolated as a result?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: When I was younger I did. My friends could go out and do stuff that I wasn’t able to do. I also used to get bullied a lot. People used to tease me. That left me with really low self-esteem and I was scared to approach new friends.

Then, when I was 12 or 13 I got jumped. I was getting off the bus and a group of guys that was standing nearby made a rude gesture at me. I made the gesture back at them, and they came over to me. They took my prosthesis off and they beat me up.

BLOOM: That’s awful, I’m so sorry.

Jeffrey Beausoleil: It’s okay. Weirdly, after that was when I started to gain confidence.

BLOOM: What changed for you?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: After I was beat up, I had a conversation with my dad about my disability. It lasted, like, two hours. He told me that he loved me. And he reminded me I had much more courage than anyone else he’d met. He also made me realize that I can’t change my body. Even if I cry or dwell, I will still have a disability. So it sank in that I had to accept myself. There will be doubters and haters all our lives. We need to prove them wrong.

BLOOM: Is there anyone else in your life that’s helped you build that self-acceptance?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: These days I feel really well-supported by my family and my friends, and a lot of times my peers don’t even realize that I’m different, physically. I’m sort of the class clown. I’m the only one that makes light of my disability. Sometimes my friend will be like, “Yo, come and help me hold this,” and I’m like, “I can’t…I only have one hand dude.” They forget about my disability because we’re so close. And it’s better to laugh about my disability than to dwell on it. At the end of the day I don’t feel like I’m different. Because I’m not. I’m not different. I’m differently abled.

BLOOM: What advice do you have for teenagers with disabilities who are still trying to gain that self-confidence? A lot of people say 'believe in yourself.' But that’s easier said than done, no?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: The biggest challenge of having a disability is to be able to genuinely believe in yourself. Because you're always thinking about how people perceive you. It’s not physically having a disability that’s hard for me. It’s what people will think: will they accept me? Will they reject me?

I’d tell other kids with disabilities, 'Do what you love.' If someone tells you that you can’t, don’t listen. Do it anyway. If you can try out one thing you’re afraid of, you might be more willing to try another thing that makes you scared. Over time, you’ll become more sure of yourself.

BLOOM: Do you still spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think of you?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: I rarely worry about my disability anymore. I’m more concerned about what people are going to think of my outfits [laughs]. That’s a classic teenager thing, I guess.

Recently I’ve actually been trying to stand out. I mean, my body is already different. I don’t want the rest of me to look like just another person in the crowd. I want to own that difference. Besides, at my school they all wear saggy pants and big t-shirts. I’m going for a classier look.

BLOOM: Have there been any upsides to having a disability?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: Lots! On top of doing sports, I love to create music. I think I got into that partly as a result of my disability. Music helps me get my anxiety and stress out. Throughout my life, working on music and listening to it has helped give me a break from my problems.

My disability gave me a strong imagination, motivation. If I wouldn't have had it, I wouldn't run Spartan races. I wouldn’t have gotten into music. Honestly, I would probably be, like, a gamer. So overall, my disability is an upside. And I’m proud of having it.

BLOOM: What are you hoping to do in the future?

Jeffrey Beausoleil: My biggest goal is to be able to work as a DJ. Music allows me to express my emotions. I can describe how I feel and who I am and I never feel restricted when I’m making music.

If I become famous, having a disability will be a good business shtick for me. You don’t often see artists with disabilities in music. So people will be like, 'Oh my God, look at this guy. He’s a DJ and he only has one hand [laughs].'

But seriously. We need people with disabilities in sports, music, art. It would be inspirational to younger people. Teenagers need to see role models so that they can believe they’ll grow up and do the same things. I know it would have made a difference for me growing up. I think I would have become more confident younger.


What no disabled DJs?

When you enter the DJ community you will find so many, if you haven't already.

And you are such a Spartan, Jeffrey!

It's good to have a space where you don't feel restricted.