Sydney Howard: "Flying Like a Birdie"

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

Sydney Howard says that of all the gymnastics she does—the vault, the balance beam, the uneven bars, and the floor exercise— she prefers the uneven bars because when she is doing her routine it feels like she is "flying like a birdie."

"I'll go from a back hip circle to a front hip circle to a flyaway off the high bar," the nine-year-old explains. A flyaway is a dismount: the gymnast holds onto the high bar with both hands and swings her body up and away, gaining momentum with each swing, so she can attain the height needed to execute a backflip before landing the jump. Except Sydney modifies her flyaway because she does not have a left hand. She wears a tumbling- and gymnastics-specific terminal device (TD), but it does not allow for grabbing or holding, so she cradles the bar in the crook of her left elbow and requires assistance to get the swing height needed to execute the backflip, says Andrea Howard, Sydney's mother.

Sydney "flies" on the uneven bars. Photographs courtesy of Andrea Howard.

Sydney was three years old when she first expressed an interest in gymnastics, Howard says. When Howard looked into a possible class, the gymnastics instructor turned her down for fear that Sydney would get hurt. Despite her and her husband Nate's mindset that Sydney can do anything that anybody else can, Howard says they acquiesced—that is until another gymnastics instructor who worked at that same facility got wind of the situation and advocated on Sydney's behalf.

"I don't know why I was in doubt," Howard says. "I think maybe [it was] because of the bars [and wondering] how she was going to hold on."

While this is a valid concern, Sydney and her gymnastics coaches have been able to work around it successfully.

When Sydney began taking gymnastics lessons, she had recently been fit with her first prosthesis—a body-powered hand with a Child Amputee Prosthetics Project (CAPP) TD from Shriners Hospitals for Children - Los Angeles, California. The CAPP TD is a pincher-like device that loosely mimics a hand's grasping motion and is designed to hold objects securely—not for gymnastics use. Sydney did not wear her prosthesis while doing gymnastics, Howard says, and that posed some difficulties when trying to turn cartwheels, for example. A cartwheel is a continuous motion, and when done properly, the performer's arms and legs resemble the spokes of a wagon wheel turning. However, one of Sydney's "spokes" is a bit shorter. "We just thought we'd have her do gymnastics without [her prosthesis], but her little arm comes probably to the top of her head, so when she was doing handstands or cartwheels it was pretty much on her head."

But that did not hold Sydney back; nothing much does.

No Holds Barred

Sydney's next goal is to do a backflip on the balance beam, her mother says.

Howard says that she and Nate knew five months into her pregnancy that Sydney was missing her hand. The couple researched the pros and cons of prosthetic use versus nonprosthetic use in children born with a limb difference and concluded that they would wait for Sydney to make the decision. "I think it was two weeks before her third birthday when she said, 'Mommy, I want a hand,' " Howard recalls.

As Sydney had already been approved to be fit for and provided with a prosthesis by Shriners, Howard says that getting the prosthesis was not a problem. However, she and Nate were cautioned that Sydney was probably not going to accept the device since she had not been acclimated to a harness and socket as an infant. Sydney instantly assuaged their doubts. "As soon as [the prosthetist] put that [CAPP TD] on her, she knew how to open and close it," Howard says. "And she hasn't had any problems doing anything [since then]. She can button, tie her shoe, and cook."

Sydney is also athletic in other areas. She started riding a bicycle without training wheels when she was four years old, Howard recalls. In addition to gymnastics, she swims and plays basketball and soccer. Her mother calls her "Monkey," and her soccer teammates called her "Shake-n-Bake" because of her ability to kick the soccer ball with either foot, rather than favoring one over the other. Although Sydney does have trouble keeping her feet on the ground at times. Howard says she is known to spontaneously execute a well-practiced cartwheel or a front walkover during the course of walking, be it outside, in her house, or even in the school hallway (although the latter has now been forbidden).

Her shortened "spoke" has also been remedied. Shortly into her gymnastics training, Shriners provided Sydney with a TD that she says looks like an ice cream scoop—a TRS Super Sport mitt that she uses when playing soccer and basketball. It also helped her get the arm length she needs to turn cartwheels and do handsprings better, Howard says. Sydney has also trained with the TD on the balance beam and uneven bars. However, a couple years later, because of Sydney's commitment to gymnastics, Shriners provided her with another TRS TD—the Shroom Tumbler—which her father found during an Internet search and proved to be better suited for gymnastics. "We were looking at this big 'mushroom' on the end of her arm and [wondered] how she was going to lift it," Howard says. "But Sydney figured that thing out.... She started to do her back handsprings and front handsprings."

So despite her elders' initial misgivings, Sydney continues to advance in gymnastics. She is currently a student at Perfect 10 Gymnastics Training studio. From the beginning, the studio owner and gymnastics coach, Dean Archie, dismissed the idea that Sydney missing a hand or wearing a prosthesis might pose a "problem," Howard says.

Archie says that he has fun teaching Sydney "because she has an extra challenge, but it doesn't impede her," such as needing assistance with her flyaway dismounts. "She wants to try the flyaway all the time. She doesn't want to miss out on anything. She is always trying hard."

Howard and Archie describe Sydney as a no-holds-barred sort of girl. She is the first in line to volunteer to try a new gymnastic skill, and she doesn't hold back, they agree. This attitude should serve her well when she competes for the first time—in a regional meet—in early 2013. The gymnastics governing body, United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs, is "not going to give her any special consideration [because of her prosthesis]...," Howard says. "They know about her and they are ready for her to [compete]... ."

"And they are excited to have her," Archie adds. Sydney, too, says she is excited to compete and is looking forward to practicing her floor routine. "My music and how I dance to it is what makes it fun," she says.

Sydney will have a lot of people rooting for her when she competes: her gymnastics coach, her teammates, and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). For the past two years, Sydney has received CAF grants to continue her gymnastics training, Howard says. In return, Howard sends CAF photos and updates on Sydney's progress. But no matter what she does or where she goes, Sydney's family will be cheering her on the loudest.

Laura Fonda Hochnadel can be reached at