Obstacles that Shape Us is a series of inspiring stories shared by Canadians who have overcome adversity. Learn how their life experiences impacted who they are and what they do today.
On her first day of kindergarten, five-year-old Tracy Schmitt was greeted with a shout from the school’s principal — “Stop!”
Now in her 40s, Schmitt says she vividly remembers him running out of the school and onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her mom and her friends.
The principal introduced himself to her mom, who was also confused about why her daughter was being stopped before she could go inside Berner Trail Public School.
She was stopped because the school couldn’t support someone like her. Schmitt, a four-way amputee, is missing both hands, along with one arm above the elbow, as well as her legs above knee.
“When I was little we didn’t have educational assistance or child and youth care workers or e.c.e.. There was just the teacher and class sizes were bigger,” she said.
“There were 30 kids in my kindergarten class and so the principal was thinking, ‘There’s no way. How does a teacher with 30 kindergarten kids support a four-way amputee’?”
Schmitt remembers the principal asking how she was going to go to the bathroom by herself and tie her shoes by herself.
“My mom knew I could do those things,” she said. “So that day my little five-year-old brain realized that ‘no’ just means they don’t know, right?”
Schmitt’s mom asked the principal to let her be part of the school for one week and if it didn’t work out they would consider other schools.
“She took all of the threats out of it,” Schmitt said. “So the principal agreed to try it out.”
On her first day of school at recess time, Schmitt was the first one with her shoe laces tied but she still didn’t make it outside.
“None of the other kids could tie their shoelaces … so the reason I didn’t make it outside is because I’m busy tying 30 shoelaces before the recess bell went off.”
“So how come I was the only little girl without hands that had to be able to tie my shoelaces when nobody else was required to tie their shoelaces?” Schmitt wondered. “My mom made sure I could tie my shoelaces … but all the other kids, their parents worked on it, they did their best, but they couldn’t tie their shoes.”
From that moment on, Schmitt earned the respect of her principal, teachers and classmates. She stayed in school and went on to do an honours degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies, a Bachelor of Education and then an MBA.
Schmitt is a competitive athlete who has done everything from climbing mountains in the Himalayas to competing in World Cup regattas with able-bodied men.
She is also a motivational speaker who goes by the name ‘Unstoppable Tracy’.
The name came a few years ago, after her friends started calling her unstoppable — a word that just stuck, she said. To Schmitt, unstoppable means embracing possibility.
One example of Schmitt embracing possibility was when she went skiing for the first time.
“When I went skiing … we just put my ski instructor’s boots, men’s boots, backwards on my thighs and it put me in the duck squat position,” Schmitt said.
“I skied standing with backwards boots and we had no idea how I was going to ski but I wasn’t going to figure that out on a couch at home, right? You just have to go for it,” Schmitt said.
“I did wipe out in the trees 12 times and the idea is you just get back up. I could’ve wiped out 11 times and not got up and not done it.”
IN PHOTOS: Unstoppable Tracy skis, sails and climbs to new heights
Schmitt also took up sailing and caught the attention of Oprah Magazine during her Quest for the Gold World Cup Sailor.
“When I started sailing, my first summer, I failed,” she said. “I fell out of the boat because I was top heavy with no legs and I kept weeble-wobbling backwards.”
“I can swim with my one arm, it doesn’t have a hand but it does have a bit of a longer arm and I can swim with that. I was wearing a life jacket.”
Schmitt now shares her experiences — like captaining a 110-foot-tall ship and winning a medal for parasailing — with hundreds of people around the world, often living in hotel rooms between speaking engagements.
IN PHOTOS: Unstoppable Tracy speaks alongside celebrities at Mega Success Bonus Day
“I have the advantage of being born this way, so I didn’t know any other way,” Schmitt said.