This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Misty Diaz was born with spina bifida, but it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she met another person with the condition. “I was going around thinking I was the only one who had this disability,” she says. Now at 30, the L.A.-based athlete travels around the country running races—and inspiring others with (and without) disabilities.
Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects the spine and spinal cord. In Diaz’s case, it damaged her L5 vertebrae. “It affected my walking, my growth, and my bladder,” she says. As a result, Diaz stands at just 4’4”, weighs 80 pounds, and uses crutches to get around. That hasn’t stopped her from completing 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and even extreme obstacle courses.
Two years ago, Diaz became the first adaptive athlete ever to finish the Red Bull 400, a 400-meter sprint up the ski jump at Utah’s Olympic Park in Park City. When she first heard about the race, in a video on Facebook, she knew right away she had to try it. Diaz began training her upper body with lots of rowing and lat pulldowns, so she could make it up the near-vertical incline on crutches. She reached the top in 35 minutes. In 2018, she shaved 10 whole minutes off her time.
Diaz wasn’t always an athlete. After her 28th–yes, 28th–surgery, a bad breakup, and a struggle with severe depression, Diaz was craving a big life change. She remembers thinking, “’I can either stay in this situation hoping for a different result, or I can take the [discomfort] that I’m going through and feeling, and I could try something completely different.'” That’s when she discovered fitness.
Diaz started with small, doable goals: Her first milestone was making it from her apartment to her mailbox. Then she wanted to walk down her entire block; then to the nearby beach. “I stayed consistent, and I was loud about my progress,” she says. “Positive energy fueled me to want to keep doing a little bit more.”
A little bit more eventually became a charity 5K walk. She showed up to the race in a purple tutu, red lipstick, and a collared shirt. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, “but I never once took into consideration that I had crutches. I started when everybody started, stopped when everybody stopped, and crossing that finish line was like the threshold of starting my life all over again.”
That first race inspired Diaz to sign up for a second one–and put a little more effort into training this time. “I had never been in a gym, but I got a gym membership,” she says. “You can’t just Google ‘how do you use a treadmill if you’re on crutches’–you’re not going to find anything,” she says. Stepping into a gym was overwhelming, but she tackled it the way she does any obstacle: Take things slowly, learn from what non-adaptive people are doing, ask questions, and use her problem-solving skills to figure out a way she can mimic the movements.
Being super-friendly didn’t hurt either. “I would just be like, ‘Hey guys!’” she says in a bubbly chirp. “I became friends with the gym manager who could see I had trouble reaching stuff.” The manager gave her guest passes so friends could come to work out with her, free of charge. “I was so grateful,” Diaz says. “Plenty of people would have given up on their first and second visit, but I found what worked for me.”
Her second 5K turned into more races, including half-marathons, and eventually obstacle races. Now, she says, she’s done 70 all over the world. Races give her a unique way to connect with other people who might usually be a little more cautious around someone with her condition. “People might be intimidated around me,” she recognizes. It’s one of the reasons her trademark red lipstick became such a racing staple. “It gave people an in, an ice breaker.” A compliment was an easy conversation starter, and she says she’s built racing friends off of a simple, “I like your lipstick.”
Thanks to the connectivity of social media, she’s made virtual friends around the world, too. Parents will contact her, inspired to race on behalf of their child with spina bifida. She also mentors kids with the condition. “I call them spina beautiful,” she says. “It was never my thing to be ‘the girl with spina bifida,’ but I just knew if I kept up the racing, slowly but surely I would start to uncover things about myself, and I might possibly be able to help other people.”
“When I meet someone with spina bifida I want them to know that anything is possible,” Diaz says. “You can still accomplish anything you want to, you just might have to try a little harder.”