Just One of the Athletes

Transfemoral amputee, Kevin Messner walked with his mother at the 2009
Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) San Diego Triathlon
Challenge after completing the first of his two track and field races. It was
the Messners first time at the triathlon and they were thoroughly enjoying the
experience. Kevin loved being near the beach and was surrounded by hundreds of
competitors who were just like him. As he walked with his mother, two
able-bodied girls spotted him. Although he was only 9-years-old at the time,
Kevin was accustomed to the stares from those who did not understand. He did
not like it, but he knew how to deal with it. Fortunately, this time was


“There’s one of the athletes!” the girls shouted. Kevin
waved and continued walking. He looked up at his mother, struggling to contain
the smile beaming from his face. That is all he has ever wanted to be —
one of the athletes.

“Hope for a good future”

Kevin was born in a rural area outside of Zhaoqing, China with a
congenital birth defect affecting his right leg. He was born missing several
bones from the femur down, including the knee, tibia and ankle and foot bones.
His birth parents left him outside the doorway of a neurological center at a
Zhaoqing hospital. It is believed they left their son hoping the hospital could
provide him with a better life. The doctors and nurses at the hospital decided
to name him Zhao Pan, which means “hope for a good future.”

Kevin was then moved to an orphanage, where he spent the next 4 years.
While at the orphanage, his hope for a good future was thousands of miles away.
Kyle Messner, his future mother, was hoping to adopt another child. After
receiving assurances from Shriners Hospital that they would assist in his
orthopedic needs, Kyle chose Zhao Pan and named him Kevin Matthew Zhao Pan

“When I saw him, I just couldn’t say no to those eyes,”
Kyle told O&P Business News. “My daughter and I flew to
China and brought him home.”

Lost in translation

Six months after his arrival in the United States, doctors performed a
knee disarticulation on Kevin’s right leg at Shriners Hospital in Salt
Lake City. Five weeks after his amputation, on his fifth birthday, Kevin stood
up and started walking with his prosthesis. Still, for Kevin and his mother,
the transition included many obstacles.

  Kyle encouraged Kevin to get involved in sports and watched as he got better and his confidence increased.
  Kyle encouraged Kevin to get
involved in sports and watched as he got better and his confidence increased.
  Images: Kyle Messner

His mother spoke a little Mandarin, but Kevin spoke Cantonese. Imagine
going through an amputation unable to communicate your fears, questions or
concerns as a 4-year-old child. It was heartbreaking for Kyle.

“We had language issues,” she said. “I told him he was
going to receive a new leg and at first, he thought he was going to get one
just like his normal leg. He was extremely disappointed in the beginning. It
took a good 2 to 3 weeks of persistence just to get him to wear the prosthesis
for 10 minutes a day,”

The Messners worked on their communication, which morphed into their own
personal language.

“People assumed I was speaking Chinese with Kevin, but it was a
language we made up on our own,” she explained. “It was part
Cantonese, part Mandarin and part English.”

Whatever the language was, it seemed to be working. Once Kevin accepted
his prosthesis, he took off.

“Within 3 weeks he was flying around,” Kyle said. “He is
a determined little boy.”

Even as a preschooler, Kevin set goals and pushed himself to achieve
them. He wanted to walk on a balance beam unaided, just like the other kids in
his class. Five weeks after receiving his prosthesis, Kevin did it

“It brought his preschool teacher to tears,” Kyle said.

A wish granted

Kevin began participating in multiple athletic activities including
archery, track and field, swimming and waterskiing.

“I just wanted him to get out there, try new things, new
activities,” Kyle said. “He is very athletic. It helps with his
self-confidence and his self-esteem. The more he sees he can do, the more he
will do.”

Kevin joined his local sports team for disabled athletes — the
Arizona Heat, located in Mesa, Ariz. After initially wanting no part of the
team, he slowly participated in more and more activities. There, he joined the
archery and track and field teams. When he first started participating in
sports, Kevin was more interested in archery. However, as he started to improve
his running skills, he became enamored with track and field. Last year, he
qualified for nationals while running on a prosthesis better suited for

“He was trucking on that thing, but he had already gone through
four knees in one year,” Kyle said.

It was at the National Junior Disability Championships in St. Louis that
the Messners first learned of CAF through word-of-mouth. They decided to attend
the CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October 2009.

“It was fun,” Kevin said. “I liked being near the ocean
and running because I really like the beach. I met a lot of kids who were
disabled like me. I liked being around them because some of them were the
fastest people. I liked meeting Rudy Garcia and Sarah Reinersten.”

In San Diego, Kevin participated in the kids run on his regular walking
prosthesis. When he was not racing, Kevin and his family were attending the
other races and events, cheering for their favorite athletes.

“We saw Scout Bassett. She was adopted from China too,” Kyle
said. “My kids and I were cheering like crazy for her. We loved attending
the triathlon. I live in a world of disabled athletes, so normally events like
this are nothing new to me. But still, that event is something else.”

Following the triathlon, Kevin applied for a grant through CAF’s
Access for Athletes program. In November 2009, he received a grant for an Ossur
Flex Run and Junior Total Knee, which allowed him to competitively run with a
more suitable prosthesis.

Improved speed and stamina

In April, Kevin practiced running on his new leg in Florida while
attending CAF’s running workshop. The practice instantly improved his
running times.

  It took some time for Kevin to get used to his prostheisis, but since then, he’s been on the move.
  It took some time for Kevin to
get used to his prostheisis, but since then, he’s been on the move.
  Images: Kyle Messner

“It makes a big difference in my speed,” Kevin said. “The
running leg feels more comfortable. I can jump and bounce high with my running
leg. I can’t bounce at all with my walking leg.”

Kevin would be too tired to run the 400m races when he was running with
his walking prosthesis. It was too heavy for him and eventually his prosthesis
would feel uncomfortable. Now, he has the quickness to run the 100m and the
stamina to race in the 400m.

“After receiving the running blade, we discovered that Kevin is
actually a middle distance runner,” she said. “We didn’t know
how much stamina he actually had until after he received his new running

Paralympic dreams

At 10 years old, Kevin is already a veteran on his local disabled
running team. He has been on the team for 3 years and has qualified for
nationals twice. Yet, before a big race, he still feels butterflies.

“Yes, before a race I am nervous,” he said. “When the
race is over I am happy and I always look to see how fast I ran.”

If you happen to be a neighbor of the Messners, you have probably seen
Kevin. He’s the one in the tie dye t-shirt, running around the block,
training in the105·F Arizona heat.

“Every year I want to improve my scores and
times,” he said. “I would like to go to the Paralympics

Kevin hopes he will run for the cross-country team with the able-bodied
athletes when he attends middle school. Kyle will do everything in her power to
help her son attain his goals — as long as he avoids the excessive heat.

“The Paralympics are part of our regular talk,” she admitted.
“But he couldn’t train last week. It was 115·F outside.”
by Anthony Calabro

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