Her mother never told Maribel she couldn’t.
And so from the time she was the child who would come home covered in mud until she was the college sophomore involved in SCUBA diving, horseback riding, and karate, Maribel Melendez-Napoles never let the fact that she was born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy tell her she couldn’t either.
Maribel was recently named Inspirational Athlete of the Year by Comcast SportsNet Sports and the March of Dimes. Nominated by the dietician and the activities coordinator at Shriners Hospital in Chicago where she has spent much of her 20 years, Maribel was also recognized for her athletic abilities in basketball, yoga, archery, and racing—most of which are done from her wheelchair.
When Maribel was in third grade, her mother brought her six children to Chicago from Mexico so Maribel and her twin sister, Marisela, who is more severely affected by the same condition, could be treated at Shriners. Carmen Napoles, who speaks very little English, sat beside her daughter at the awards dinner and heard her daughter’s acceptance speech through an interpreter.
In her speech, Maribel shared the two reasons she was involved in sports: the chance to meet new people and fear. In fact, her fear of drowning compelled her to become a certified diver. She was also inspired by the women with spinal cord injuries who were diving. Maribel decided that if they could do it, she could, even though she didn’t know how to swim. But she learned, and she took her sister into the water with her. Marisela had nearly drowned as a child, and then came the day that the twins dove together, and after reaching 35 feet, Maribel scanned the water for her sister who she saw waving at her triumphantly.
“I once asked my mother why she never said ‘no’ to the crazy things I do. My mom said there were already so many things I couldn’t do that she wasn’t going to tell me I couldn’t,” said Maribel.
Some of this bravery has apparently been learned through example. Raising six children, including twins, who at 10 began extensive surgeries, and starting life in a foreign country, her mother served as Maribel’s example of what to do no matter how scared you may be.
Once Maribel asked her mother what her worst fear was. Carmen answered, “That one day you would look at me and ask ‘why did I have to be in a wheelchair?’” Maribel has never asked her mother that question.
“Fear can be a bigger barrier than any disability,” Maribel told the hundreds gathered that night at the awards ceremony. “Many times bravery gets confused with fearlessness, and it’s not the same thing. It’s what we do in spite of our fears that shows our true bravery.”
The ceremony also honored many professional Chicago sports figures. For Maribel, neither the award, nor the speech, was the most important part of the evening for her. That came when Maribel felt compelled to offer encouragement to Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, whose infant daughter battles DiGeorge syndrome, which leaves her unable to swallow.
“I felt like I had to say it. I kept telling him she is going to be fine and the world will have to adjust,” said Maribel. “If someone had told my mom that, it wouldn’t have been so hard for her all those years.”
View Maribel's speech online. Please note: This video takes a long time to load- allow ample loading time before playing the clip.
Coming to College
Maribel, a chemistry major who lives in Berwyn, Illinois, knew she wanted to attend a small, private college, thinking a bigger school environment wouldn’t be best for her. In the summer of 2008, Maribel attended a summer institute on Trinity’s campus, sponsored by the Associated Colleges of Illinois.
Later, while attending a Chicago Fire game where she was to receive a scholarship award, she met a Trinity admissions counselor who encouraged her to apply. Maribel was still hesitant, one of the reasons being her reluctance to be too far from home where Marisela relied on her help and companionship. Then a friend told her about Trinity’s Greater Chicago Christian Leadership Scholarship, which provides full tuition to recipients. She was accepted to the College and was also awarded the scholarship.
“Obviously God wanted me here,” she said.
No obstacle seems insurmountable for the young woman with the brave—though not fearless—approach to the life she has lived and the one that lay ahead. “Everything has come when it needed to come,” said Maribel. “I close my eyes on that big elephant in the road, and when I open them, he will be an ant. That’s how God works.”