I drove out to Sunnyside High School on Friday morning to meet a badminton player with a disability.
Instead I met Pahoua Yang.
If not for the images of Yang that Bee photographer John Walker showed me the day before, I probably wouldn’t have noticed her among the dozens of girls warming up in the gym for the County/Metro Athletic Conference individual championships.
That is to say there is nothing different about Yang, a senior who plays on Sunnyside’s No. 3 doubles team.
You have to look really close to notice Yang’s hands don’t look like everyone else’s. Both are misshapen, most of her fingers hardly more than stubs.
Even Michele Pacheco, her coach and PE teacher, didn’t notice. Not until Yang made sure she did.
“It wasn’t until Pahoua and I had a conversation and she actually showed me her hands,” Pacheco says. “I went, ‘My goodness, kid.’ Because anything that we played in PE, she found a way to do it.”
Despite being born with symbrachydactyly, a rare condition that affects 1 in 32,000 babies, Yang has always found a way.
Yang’s hands – both are malformed, which is rare even for those with symbrachydactyly – don’t prevent her from gripping a badminton racquet or twirling it between points.
They don’t prevent her from twisting off the top of a Gatorade bottle, taking a sip and twisting it back on. Or from rolling up the sleeves of her T-shirt (“Helps me feel stronger,” she says) or putting her hair in a bun.
Those same underdeveloped hands also don’t prevent Yang from writing, typing or drawing anime with colored pencils, from getting a 4.24 GPA in the rigorous Doctors Academy program or from attending senior prom.
You know, the important stuff.
“These are the hands I’ve been given,” Yang tells me between matches. “Since I don’t really know what is normal, this is normal to me.”
Normal to Yang, perhaps, but extraordinary by every other measure. When she grasps a racquet, only her fully developed thumb wraps completely around the handle. Her four stubby fingers, called “nubbins,” can’t reach.
Yet in the two matches I watch, the racquet never fidgets from Yang’s grip. As difficult as it sounds to play badminton with half a hand, she makes it look effortless.
Which it isn’t. At the beginning of every season Yang’s palm gets covered in blisters, blisters that pop and bleed before callouses form.
“It’s really nasty, but I like playing badminton,” she says. “So it doesn’t stop me.”
What’s most noticeable about Yang and doubles partner Lee Vang is how much fun they’re having.
Both are smiling, laughing, gesturing. They exchange high fives after every point, no matter if one of them rips a winner or smacks the shuttle into the net. And unlike when, say, James Harden and Dwight Howard high five, it’s obvious these girls genuinely like each other and enjoy playing together.
“She’s very skillful in badminton,” Vang says after the duo drops a tough three-game match to a team from Edison. All three games finished 22-20. “I make too many mistakes.”
“No, you don’t,” Yang retorts.
When Pahoua (pronounced Pa-HOO-a) Yang sets foot on the UC Davis campus this fall, she’ll be the first person from her Hmong family to attend college. She plans to study biological sciences with the goal of attending med school and becoming a pediatrician.
And that’s only the beginning. Yang’s long-term goal is to become a role model for others with birth defects like hers.
“I know there are people like me who hide their conditions,” she says. “They don’t have the same confidence. I want to inspire them. I don’t have a ton of confidence, but I don’t hide who I am.”
In first grade, Yang underwent surgery to remove the webbing between the third and fourth fingers on her right hand and went to school with the hand heavily bandaged.
It was the first time she remembers feeling self conscious, and things only got worse. In elementary school she was bullied and taunted with mean names like “crab hands.” Other kids wouldn’t play with her because someone had spread a rumor that she cut off her own fingers and ate them.
“They weren’t nice, but I can’t really blame them,” she says now. “They’re not exposed to situations like this and people like me.”
By the time she got to high school, Yang stopped caring what others thought. She stopped hiding her hands and started using them to point directions. She even started painting her few fingernails.
And whenever people stared at her or asked awkward questions or, as was the case recently, just started screaming, Yang would tell them straight out that she was born this way and not to be afraid.
“These are just hands,” she’d say. “They feel nothing different, so don’t be scared.”
One day last year, Pacheco made an unusual request. There was a girl in one of Pacheco’s PE classes, a freshman, who always kept her left hand tucked away inside a pocket or sweatshirt.
“We wondered if she might have the same condition,” Pacecho says. “So I asked Pahoua to speak with her.”
Turned out the girl also has symbrachydactyly, and at first Yang wasn’t sure if she was ready for this sort of conversation.
Which she certainly was.
“I told her, first, to love herself, to love those little nubs, to love those short fingers,” Yang says. “Because they’re not going anywhere. They need to be loved and cherished.”
I drove out to Sunnyside High on Friday morning to meet a badminton player with a disability.
Instead I met an extraordinary young lady.
“She’s just a light that shines so brightly,” Pacheco says.