Gabi Ury What’s Wrong with Me? Absolutely Nothing TEDxSanDiego 2014
Has anyone here ever done a plank before? When I say “plank,” I don’t mean where you get on the ground, lie down on random things and take pictures for Instagram. I mean that awful exercise they probably made you do in gym class.
My name is Gabi Ury. I’m 16 years old. If anyone had told me a year ago that I’d be on this stage, giving this speech about how I broke the female Guinness World Record for longest abdominal plank, I would have thought they were completely crazy.
By most people’s standards, there is quite a lot wrong with me. But I see it differently. And that makes all the difference. Up until the day I was born, my parents were expecting a perfectly normal baby girl. Then I popped out. You see, no one, not even the doctors, realized that I was one in the 40,000 babies born with VATER Syndrome every year. For me individually, it affects my spine, spinal cord, legs, feet and a number of my organs. That’s a lot of problems for a tiny baby.
The doctors weren’t sure if I would ever walk, or even live. And, well, here I am. In order to fix all of those problems, I had to undergo about 15 major surgeries, casts on both my legs and my back for 11 years, physical therapy every single day for years and literally hundreds and hundreds of doctor’s appointments.
People always ask me how hard it was for me. But, to be honest, I don’t remember most of it. As weird as it may sound, I never knew anything different, so it was kind of normal. For my parents, on the other hand, it was hell.
As I got older, I still had to do things every day to ensure that I stayed healthy and go to a few doctor’s appointments every year. But my day-to-day life was pretty normal. I would go to school, play with my friends and go to PE. I didn’t let the fact that things were harder for me get in my way. My philosophy ever since I was little was that complaining about my situation wasn’t going to help, so what was the point?
I didn’t care that I was smaller or couldn’t run as fast as any of my friends, and neither did anyone else. The way I saw it, the only thing wrong was when people thought I couldn’t do something.
Ever since I was little, I have been very competitive and wanted to break a Guinness World Record. Yes, I am an ambitious little girl. I started out with easier records. Granted, I didn’t make any of them. I started with longest hopscotch course in my driveway with my friend Leah when I was about 10. Another one was most socks on one foot. I think I got to 70 to 80 socks on my left foot. This was always in the back of my mind, turning the wheels.
A little over a year ago, I was trying out for my school’s volleyball team. When everyone else had to run the mile, I explained to my coach that I couldn’t, as I was born without calf muscles.
Let’s be honest, running really isn’t my thing. So, she told me to get on the ground and do the plank for as long as I could. When everyone else came back, it had been 12 minutes. When I saw everyone else’s surprise that I had held it that long, I instantly thought, “Guinness World Record.”
That day, I went home and applied for the record. I saw the current record was 40 minutes and one second. In November, I underwent surgery and spent a few weeks recovering. But please, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
In January, I decided it was a good time to see how long I could actually plank for. The goal on the first day was 20 minutes. Then 25, then 27 and so on. I decided that, for my 16th birthday in April, I would try and break the record.
As the day got closer, I got the idea to raise money for a cause along with the record. I chose Children’s Hospital in Denver where I had most of my surgeries. I think without the doctors and nurses there, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do a plank, let alone break the world record.
I made a website with the initial stretch target of $5,000. Little did I know that, by the end of this all, I would have raised more than 10 times that amount. That’s insane to even think about. The day of the event finally came. I had my movie on my iPhone and I was ready to go.
Then, something I hadn’t factored in happened. Watching TV and Ellen YouTube videos was enough to keep me distracted when I was alone in my room with my puppy, Mia. But it wasn’t cutting it with all my family, friends and people all over the world watching via live webcast. It had only been 30 minutes when I started to notice that everything was hurting. My arms were killing me.
My friends came over and tried to distract me. They told me funny stories. They sang songs, and basically did anything to get my mind off what was actually going on. My friend Leah’s inspirational quote of the day was, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
Once I started to have fun, time went by quickly. Soon, I had passed an hour. When I asked my timekeeper how long it had been, she said it was an hour and 16 minutes. I decided that an hour and 20 would go down. I wanted to end on an even number.
It was only after that, that I realized it was exactly double the record that I had been going for. For the last five minutes, my friends joined me and supported me by planking. Little did I know that they were cheating every time I looked down.
Right after that, they came and attacked me with silly string. Then, my brother brought out my birthday cake and I spent the rest of the day actually celebrating my birthday in a fun way.
I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen after the whole plank thing. But, you see, a lot did. I started getting interview requests to be on TV. I had never been on TV. That was so cool. I even got to be on The Ellen Show’s website. If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a really big fan of hers.
I remember I was in English class when I started getting very cryptic text messages from my brother, like, “What are you doing on Monday and Tuesday?” I said, “Nothing, I have school.” He said, “Do you want to go to New York?” I said, “Why” Finally, he said, “They want you to be on Good Morning America.” I was so excited.
Me, my mom and my brother all got to fly out to New York and I even got to meet Emma Stone. But the best part of it all was the Guinness surprised me on the show by presenting me with the official certificate saying that I had broken the record. It felt amazing, especially to know that all those people, including my family who had given me a funny look when I said I wanted to break the world record for planking, now knew I had done it.
Whenever I get those kind of odd looks, I think to myself, “Everything is impossible, until someone has done it.” One of the best parts after that was visiting Kids Tree, the place where the money had gone. Kids Tree is a pre-school for kids with special needs at Children’s Hospital. They have every kind of therapist imaginable.
My mom especially appreciated this, as she knew the troubles of a “high maintenance” child. I really liked the kids, but even more, I liked that my plank was helping them.
Right after that, my Dad received an email from a doctor that he had met on the day I was born. This doctor had never really been my doctor. But he had always been there when my parents wanted help deciding something about my care. It turns out, his new job is directing Kids Tree. He could have never thought that tiny, little baby with all of those problems could have one day helped the place where he now worked. Life has a funny way of coming full circle.
After that, something even cooler happened. I was approached by a Chinese TV station. Apparently, the plank is really popular in China. They flew all the way out to Colorado to interview me at my house. They did a seven-minute feature that went out to millions of people. You never know where something you start on the floor of your bedroom will end up.
Reflecting back on it all, I think the thing that truly made a difference was the way people treated me and the way I looked at life. No one ever treated me like I was different. My parents always let me try whatever I wanted. My Mom even let me go to Thailand alone for two weeks. She researched every hospital within a 50 mile radius of where I was going, but she still let me go.
As for my friends, well, they couldn’t care less about my special needs. In fact, I think they kind of enjoy it. Because, when we go to amusement parks, we don’t have to wait in line.
You see, no one ever pitied me, so I grew up thinking I could do anything. If that wasn’t the case, I probably wouldn’t have tried out for volleyball, which, let’s be honest, is theoretically a tall person’s sport. Without my special needs, I would have run the mile, not planked and not broken the record. Instated of being here today, I probably would be watching Ellen YouTube videos at my home.
I wouldn’t have taken my physical abilities, theoretically my greatest weakness, and turned it into my greatest strength. Even though a lot of things in my life were no fun, I wouldn’t change anything, because that made me who I am and led me to be here.
What’s wrong with me? Absolutely nothing. If you can take one thing away from this, don’t underestimate others simply because they have some sort of “disability.” Most importantly, don’t underestimate yourself. You may not try something that you’re 99% sure you’re going to be terrible at, which may turn into something amazing.
As Audrey Hepburn once said, “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says I’m possible.” Thank you.