Natalie Sharp isn’t your typical black belt candidate. Born with bilateral phocomelia, she explains that her “arms are extremely short and I only have three fingers on each hand.”
But, quick to lighten the mood, she adds, “I look like a really cute, adorable T-Rex!”
Don’t let the cute exterior fool you, though. A student at Sherman’s Martial Arts in Chester, Maryland, Natalie is every bit a serious martial artist. And she’s not only had to overcome her own fears in the sport, but also quiet the fears of many around her.
“When Natalie first came in as a 12-year-old girl, I had concerns about taking her on as a student,” says Sherman’s Martial Arts owner and instructor, Master Jim Sherman. “Not because of her personally, but I wanted to make sure it would be worth her time.”
Sherman says he was hesitant to accept Natalie as a student because of her increased risk of injury. For example, someone with phocomelia can more easily break a hand if they were to hit something too hard.
But Sherman decided to take on Natalie as a student despite his reservations, trying her out first in private lessons.
“What I discovered was a young, beginner student with the grit and determination far beyond her age or experience,” Sherman recalls. “By the time she was a yellow belt, she was kicking on a black belt level.”
That’s because Natalie was accustomed to using her feet to compensate for her hands. What no one could foresee was that the dexterity in her feet would advance her beyond her normal rank in speed and reach when it came to foot techniques.
“My foot speed and flexibility is not just in martial arts, but in everyday life,” says Natalie.
Whether it’s grabbing things from her desk or reaching for something off the top shelf, Natalie has learned to use her feet to accomplish all sorts of tasks in order to “decrease my dependence on having modified equipment."
But long before she discovered her martial arts gift with her feet, she endured ridicule from those who considered her outside the norm because of her phocomelia.
“Many would blurt out insensitive things, calling me freakish,” Natalie says, remembering times when she was bullied simply for looking different. “Middle school was probably the worst experience of my life. But it’s also the catalyst behind getting me to sign up for karate lessons in the first place.”
And while her martial arts training continues and middle school is but a memory, Natalie says she is still often misjudged.
“My life’s challenge has not been that I have a birth defect,” Natalie asserts. “It’s been the fact that people may view me as weak just because I don’t look like everybody else.”
Natalie’s instructor is quick to refute that notion, saying it “would be a mistake” to think of Natalie as anything less than strong and capable.
“Natalie’s ability to find a way to get things done is not the thinking of a weak-minded individual,” Master Sherman says. “I’ve had students born with fully formed body parts that don’t have that kind of focus.”
It was her martial arts training, Natalie says, that inspired her to find new ways of problem solving when it came to her birth defect: “My training has showed me how to focus and improve on what I can do, rather than become frustrated with my limitations.”
Natalie’s parents are also well-aware of their daughter’s capabilities and were insistent on not overcompensating for her birth defect while she was growing up by giving her special treatment.
“I really appreciate that today,” Natalie says. “I needed to develop the ability to figure things out for myself.”
Natalie believes it’s that attitude that has helped sharpen her survival instincts in order to live an independent life as an adult.
“I will continue to breakdown people’s expectations of what I’m capable of,” Natalie says.
And with a natural “cup is half-full” attitude, Natalie continues to surpass expectations and inspire those around her—on and off the mat.
“So I can’t do push-ups,” she says, “but most people can’t grab a can of beans off the top shelf with their feet.”