Athlete Misty Diaz shows how limitless life with spina bifida can be

ABC(LOS ANGELES) — Misty Diaz bench presses more than her own body weight. She dominates in the gym and on the Spartan Field – completing more than 65 Spartan Races to date. She is an absolute force – but when she was born, doctors never thought she’d even be able to walk.

Diaz was born with spina bifida, something only 1,645 babies are born with each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

“Spina bifida means split spine. So for my case, my spine was completely exposed at L5,” Diaz told “Nightline.” “I had most of my organs on the outside of my body.”

She says doctors told her parents “to let nature [run] its course” when she was born. They responded, “’Do whatever you need to do in order to keep our child alive.’”

She flew to Fresno Children’s Hospital from her home in Los Angeles. “They couldn’t figure it out. So they flew me to UCLA Hospital. That’s where I had every operation.”

In total, Diaz had 28 surgeries there.

“I was never able to make friends… growing up,” Diaz said. “It was really hard because kids didn’t understand, like kids thought I was contagious.”

Her family chose to home school her because she kept getting sick.

“Kids around that age were going on dates, going to prom, going to homecoming,” she said. “I never got to do any of those. I never got to go to homecoming. No one ever asked me out.”

But Diaz says her parents never focused on the things she couldn’t do — they pushed her to find all the things she could achieve.

“They did a really, really good job at making sure that I was independent,” she said. “Making sure that I didn’t make any excuses. [My mom] just would be like, ‘I’m not going to be here, so I’m not going to reach that for you — How would you get that?’”

“At the time, I would literally cry and throw a fit,” Diaz said. “And she’s like, ‘You don’t understand, as a mother it was like the worst. I just wanted to grab it for you… But I know you can do it.’”

Diaz says “just figuring it out” has been her “entire life.”

“Like I literally will just sign up for something, and I’m like OK, you figure this out.”

To date, she has signed up and completed more than 200 endurance races around the world, including Malaysia and Japan. But not long ago, these medals seemed impossible.

“I went to UCLA with [an] overnight bag just to get me through the night. And I was supposed to be released that day,” she said of her most recent surgery in 2010.

“I was there for 10 days and I was given morphine two to three times a day. And then when I left… I was still bleeding. Like, I was still severely in pain. So in order for me to cope, I kept refilling my prescription. And anybody knows if you take any type of opiate, any type of something mind-altering, you’re never the same,” she said. “I was losing everything. I lost my house, I lost a lot of stuff.”

She said she knew she needed to make a change when she realized “no one was going to help me… I was just like, ‘I am too young for this.’”

Diaz started off by just walking, and quickly that walk went from a run to a full-on sprint.

“I thought I’d sign up for a 5K so I went online and I found one. And I showed up in a purple tutu and Payless shoes,” she laughed. “[I] ran when everybody ran and stopped when everybody stopped. And that was it.”

She said she “just kept showing up to races.”

“I slowly got everything back. I got a job at a better job. I got a car and a better car. I got my dog back. I got my own apartment. I got a better apartment. We’re doing good.”

The gym is now a part of Diaz’s everyday life. Her boyfriend Chad Hirschman, who she’s been dating for five years, is often doing pull ups right by her side.

“We met online. It was I was at the gym actually, working out. And I got, like, this notification. This guy was, like, ‘I think I just saw you on the news,’” she laughed. “I was, like, ‘Oh no.’”

“I might’ve been persistent,” Hirschman said. “I thought she was sweet and a good person.”

Life together is sweet, but sometimes the outside world can be cruel.

“People, like, point. And sometimes you just wanna go to the grocery store and get some milk,” she said. “That would make you feel like, ‘Well, what’s wrong with me?’”

Diaz says her goal is to show the world that spina bifida doesn’t define who she is. She’s working with brands to help make their products more adaptive and came out with her own lipstick line for makeup brand REALHER.

“My overall goal is to create some type of…lipstick, mascara, blush, for someone who has dexterity issues, quadriplegic–elderly, to be able to hold the product and be independent to put makeup on,” she explained.

She says she believes it’s “really important, whether it just be a lipstick… the confidence that gives somebody, whether it be red or just gloss. I want people to be independent.”

Independent and beautiful, inside and out. That self-love is the core belief behind the movement Diaz helped launch — #SpinaBeautiful.

“The bigger picture is that so many people who are adaptive, who have spina bifida, are just crushing life,” she said.

She visits young people just like herself to show them how limitless an adaptive life can be.

“I think that has been the biggest battle of my entire life, is just having acceptance within myself,” she said. “You know, years later, simply just standing in front of the mirror and saying, ‘You know what? You are beautiful, you are strong, you are confident.’ [That] allowed me to continue to grow and to finally be the person that I am.”

She says she’s been thinking about “getting a little older… I don’t know how long I’m gonna be like, running. Like, let’s be real,” she laughed.

“But I’m having fun… I wanna look back. I’m gonna be old. I’m gonna be [a] cute, little old lady with red lipstick. And I’m gonna be, like, ‘You guys. Look at these medals.’”

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