PUTTING HER BEST FOOT FORWARD/ by Rachel Raven Jeraffi
I met her backstage at LA Fashion Week. She stood out with her long silky black hair, pale skin, and big beautiful eyes that revealed a rare combination of innocence and strength. It was dark and packed backstage in the frenzy of last-minute hair and makeup touchups. The next show was about to go on and a row of nervous faces waited patiently. After all, these were not your usual models, and Bezgraniz couture was not an ordinary fashion show.
My lens was drawn to that face. She smiled at me and seemed to enjoy being photographed. I noticed her left leg was amputated. I approached her and stated, “you know, you should really model.” She laughed and told me it had always been her dream. She introduced herself. Her name was Caitlin Conner. “I flew in from Texas for this show”, she explained, “I’m a little anxious…thanks for making me feel more comfortable.”
“You’ll be great out there”, I assured her. I gave her my number and let her know that she was welcome to call me if she wanted to collaborate in the future. As I watched her go onstage with such confidence and grace, I knew our paths would cross again somehow.
A few months later I received a phone call from Caitlin. “I want to do this”, she said, “I’ve decided, I really want to model". I’m embarrassed to say that it took almost two years of planning and scheduling since that phone call to finally meet, but eventually we did. This meeting culminated in a glorious two-day photoshoot in California.
Before our shoot I wanted to learn as much as I could about Caitlin’s personal story. All I had seen was a long list of TV features on her that she had sent me. As I clicked on the links, I became more and more inspired and emotional by this real-life superwoman. I watched this young mom jump out of planes, cycle, run in marathons, and even compete in a boxing match. I felt there was something special about this young woman. She had an inner strength, a sense of purpose, and a genuine desire to be a positive influence.
It was in a three-hour phone conversation that Caitlin opened up about the accident, her struggles, and her new outlook on life.
“It was May 30th 2014, just one day before my 24th birthday. My husband and I were newlyweds,” she spoke softly. “We were on our way to meet our family at a nearby restaurant. It was a beautiful sunny day and we decided to take the motorcycle for a ride, as the restaurant was only about a mile away. What happened next would change my life forever. Out of nowhere, a car plowed into the bike sending us rolling in different directions. It all happened so fast. When I finally stopped rolling, I sat up and looked at my ankle. It was turned flat inward.
I was in excruciating pain. I knew I had severed an artery from my high school EMS medical background. You see, I’m a very logical person”, she explained, “so in stressful situations, I know how to control my emotions and think rationally.” I could hear her sigh as if re-living those terrifying moments."I knew I had to slow down my breathing so I wouldn’t lose any more blood. Then I looked around realizing I was in the middle of the highway and screamed as loud as I could in order to get traffic to stop. People came pouring in from all directions. My husband heard me and tried to get up, but his pelvis was broken so he fell. I could hear him crying. He later told me he thought he was going to die”.
“I was air lifted to a nearby hospital and they took my husband to a different one by ambulance, so we didn’t see each other. I guess I had been drugged because the next thing I remember is waking up to my family beside me. A nurse walked in and exclaimed, ‘Oh good, you’re up! By the way, you’re pregnant”.
“It’s ironic how in the midst of all this pain I would find out about my pregnancy. But this joyous news became my rock and I was no longer worried about anything. I sensed deep in me that it would all be okay. My mission now was to get better so I could take care of my baby.”
“The doctors were doing everything they could to save my leg, but with each surgery there was a greater risk to my baby’s health. I wanted this kid more than anything. This unborn child was a ray of sunshine for my family who had suffered so much in the past few years. In 2010 my stepdad took his life, followed by my brother’s death in 2013 due to a seizure, and in 2014 my mother-in-law was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was an extremely difficult period and everyone was waiting for this baby. I wasn’t going to let anything happen to it”.
“When my doctor told me that we needed to talk, I remember praying that my baby was okay. He emphasized that if I continued to receive the drugs necessary for my surgeries it would put my baby at a grave risk. I remember being silent for what seemed like eternity. Then, as if by a strong inner guidance, I looked him in the eye and said: “This foot doesn’t define me. You can cut it off”
“And that was that.”
Listening to Caitlin’s story, I couldn’t help thinking what confidence, maturity, and strength she must have to make such a decision. I wondered what I would have done in her position. Could I have faced choosing between an unborn child and a limb?
I noticed Caitlin had just finished telling her story and was waiting patiently for me to say something. I still had so many questions, so I began to ask.
Rachel: Were you always an athlete?
Caitlin: “No, I was never good at anything when I was growing up, I was a quitter…I always started and quit things like the piano and gymnastics…I didn’t have anyone to show me how to practice and challenge myself”.
R: So how did you start?
C:“After the accident, I set two goals for myself. I wanted to walk before my daughter, and I wanted to run before her. This was simply so I could be a normal mom…so I could run and play with my child. Then it became more than that. I didn’t want to just be a mom. I asked myself what kind of a mom do I want to be, and I decided I want to set an example for my daughter, that she can do anything she sets her mind to, and that she can become anything she wants to be.
My prosthetics company asked me how I feel about running in a local 5k with their team, so I signed up. I thought it would be useful to be able to chase a thief in the parking lot if they grabbed my wallet or god forbid someone took my child. I felt very vulnerable even doing small daily tasks like going to the grocery store.
I ended up walking most of the way pushing Tinley in a stroller, and it was very painful. I did it in 58 minutes and 2 seconds. Then I asked myself; if I can do this, what else can I do?…and how much better can I get? Then it became a self-challenge for me. I started doing things I never thought I could do and I decided to try everything to see what I am good at.”
R: And you have so many wins and accomplishments! Could you name a few?
C: “Oh boy, …let’s see, the bigger ones are the Houston half marathon in 2018, I won two gold medals running in the Texas regionals last year, Silver medal in shooting, Silver in 50m swim, Gold in Javelin and long jump, Seven Triathalons including NYC Tri Olympic, three Silver medals in para-cycling including a national record in the Flying 200 competition, first place in obstacle course race, 1st place Para-elite Spartan team, and first in the world November 2018, Crossfit competition with team at Arnold’s sports festival last year.
I am also the first female amputee boxer in the US, and second in the world. I had a fight with Erika Novarria who came all the way from Italy to make history.
R: This is just amazing…you must be so proud…
C:“ Yes I am “
R: Have you ever asked yourself how your life would have been different had this not happened?
C:“I’ve never had self-pity…but I have often thought how my life would have been different if things didn’t happen this way. But then, I wouldn’t be the woman who I am proud to be today.
I would have never tried all the things I have…and I wouldn’t have had my beautiful healthy daughter, Tinley”.
R: What is your motivation?
C: 99% of my motivation is my daughter. She’s a mini-me and goes with me everywhere. And the other 1% are the people that look to me for inspiration.
R: Why do you want to model?
C:“ Growing up in my hometown, beauty had to look a certain way..you know, all the girls wore lots of makeup and looked a certain way….I didn’t fit into that definition, that’s why I never thought I was pretty. My mom signed me up for different beauty pageants like Ms. Texas teen and county fair queen….she wanted me to do this, but it never came from me because I never felt beautiful. I do have some fun memories from those days, though, and from my beloved mom who passed away earlier this year.
Now I want to go out and show people that there are different versions of beauty. I want to connect to people through modeling and show them the beauty in themselves, just the way they are. I’d like to also prove my old self-wrong….that I can model the way I am …that I am still beautiful”.
R: Who is your favorite model of all time?
C:“ Definitely Audrey Hepburn. She’s classic, and I love her style. I think I was born in the wrong
time period”…. as for an amputee model, I love Viktoria Modesta.
R: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
C: Yes, it’s my own quote:
"The best thing you can do for your life is to try. You never know what you're missing out on by
heeding to your own limitations.”
R: How do you inspire others?
C: “I like to share my story so that people don’t feel alone. Then people open up and share their own story, and it becomes a beautiful blessing. Everyone goes through something. I love talking to my Uber drivers. Talking to strangers makes me happy. When I was in Colorado, I took an Uber ride with an African driver who hardly spoke English. Despite the language barrier we managed to communicate. I told him my story. Then he told me it’s his first day back to work since he had just lost his daughter 10 days ago. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what I would have done if I lost my daughter….that’s an example that everybody’s got trouble…and after hearing this man, I think I’ll keep my own troubles”….
R: How do you see yourself?
C: “To be honest, I still have days when I don’t like my body, mainly when I criticize myself for not having enough muscle and not working hard enough. In the beginning, after the accident, it was odd not to see a leg there…sometime I’d like to look down and see a foot….but then I tell myself that I love myself as I am. I also have a big scar on my shoulder that I would not cover, it’s part of my story”.
R: Who inspires you?
C:“My dad. Even when people are mean to him, he still has a big heart…and even when he doesn’t have much, he always tries to find ways to give. I love these qualities and I hope to do the same in my life.
R: Did the accident change the relationship with your husband?
C: “Yes. Everything changed because I changed. I realized I am not quite the person I thought I was. We became so different. I wanted to soar and be my own person, and I didn’t get the support from him. He didn’t understand what I was trying to do. He just saw himself as the
breadwinner…not as a cheerleader, which is what I needed. We decided to divorce. I see the good in him, but I wasn’t bringing out the good in him. I see his potential coming out with someone more fit for him, and same for myself. I want to give my daughter, Tinley, stability, and this was not possible if I had stayed in my marriage”.
R: What kind of a mom are you?
C: “I teach my daughter to be confident and strong. I want her to be able to take care of herself and not rely on anyone. I want her to have different experiences... I rather give her experiences than toys. I rather create memories for her than collect things.”
R: What are your goals?
C: “ I still have the Paralympics on my mind…i’d like to continue advocating for amputees. I see a modeling career….and maybe a Vogue cover would be awesome”
“ I want to get better at speaking. I have started doing that but I need to get better…..and I want to write a book. But most importantly, I’d like to see my daughter grow up to be a happy teen, and I want to be happy with my partner.
Simple life stuff that people take for granted”.
R: You’ve also started a non Profit organization?
C: Yes, it’s called “Be More Adaptive’.
Be More Adaptive was created because I realized there was a need to have all adaptive resources in one central location. When I became an amputee, it took me a couple years to research and understand the opportunities that were out there for me. Not everyone has the time or know how to learn these things, so I want to make that easier for others struggling to manage their abilities.
Be More Adaptive will offer the world's largest database of everything adaptive. It also promotes other nonprofits and encourages pooling of resources so the community can take care of those needing help. Everything is meant to be a healthy cycle, much like the recycle symbol in the way that everything gives to the next in line. A symbol of balanced give and take. For more info visit:
R: You also have an art project?
C: It’s called ‘Your Art As My Therapy’, and various artists submit their work
which is intended to uplift and inspire, providing ways to cope with everyday life challenges through art. It’s about receiving perspective through the eyes of another, by letting an artist tell your story for you when you cannot.
For more information go to @YourArtAsMyTherapy
R: So you named your leg?
C: “ Yes, I did, I call it ‘Rex’. The scar pattern from my amputation looks like a dinosaur, and I used to put two fingers underneath like arms and pretend it was a T Rex. I thought it’s a cool name to use for my social media”.
R: Speaking of social media, how can people find you?
C: I’m on both Instagram and Facebook.
F Caitlin Conner Official
R: I would like to end with gratitude. what are you grateful for?
C: “I have so much to be grateful for……For the life I have…for my daughter…for the roof over our head. I’ve been through a lot this year. My mom passed away, and I am grateful for the memories I have with her…
I am grateful for everything I have”.
R: “And I am truly grateful for meeting you, Caitlin Conner, I added. ‘Thank you’.