PEABODY — Sheila Radziewicz has been beating the odds since birth.
"I was not supposed to live," she said. "Then I wasn't ever supposed to walk."
Because of a congenital birth defect, she was born without arms. She also came into the world without kneecaps and with her feet rotated in, toward each other.
She endured multiple surgeries as a young girl, all aimed at helping her walk. Until she was in junior high, Radziewicz had to wear metal braces that stopped at the top of her thigh, similar to the ones the character Forrest Gump wore in the movie.
Today, Radziewicz, 32, is not only walking, she is kicking. And next month she will test for her black belt in taekwondo.
Reaching such heights in the realm of martial arts is laudable for anyone. For Radziewicz to do it is nearly a miracle.
"I grew up with the phrase, 'The impossible only takes a little longer,'" she said.
She walked into Bruce McCorry's Martial Arts in Peabody three years ago. Since then, the Route 1 studio has turned into a second home for Radziewicz, and her instructors and classmates have become an extended family.
Radziewicz appreciated being treated like any other student, not as a person with disabilities. Her teachers, meanwhile, were awed by her determination.
"She is a very motivating person for myself," said McCorry, who has never had a student like Radziewicz in his 32 years operating a karate academy. "There are no excuses, in other words."
"She never feels sorry for herself," instructor Sandra LaRosa said.
Radziewicz was born with thrombocytopenia-absent radius, or TAR, syndrome. She credits her family and friends with creating an environment that fostered self-sufficiency.
"They never let me say I couldn't," she said. "They told me that I could."
It wasn't easy for her growing up. Kids stared at her. They called her names. The bullying, however, didn't last long if her older sisters, Christine and Lisa, were around.
"Whenever anyone would make fun of me, they were there in a heartbeat to make sure that it stopped," Radziewicz said.
She began living on her own at 19. She lives in Salem now and helps women navigate the court system as a local advocate coordinator for HAWC, Healing Abuse Working for Change, which helps victims of domestic violence.
At 23, Radziewicz earned her driver's license. The state helped fashion a car for her that she drives with her feet.
Her trips to the martial arts studio have become a form of therapy, a way to release the stresses of her personal and professional life.
"It's nice to have an outlet where you can just kind of empty your mind," she said.
Her training is adapted to accommodate her limitations.
"They show me the regular form, and when we get to a point where I can't do it, we find a way to change it," she said. Radziewicz, for example, grips nunchucks with her teeth at one point in her demonstration of the weapon. Her focus is derived from her ability to always "stay in the present."
On the verge of her black belt, Radziewicz recently began to share her expertise with children in the studio's beginner classes.
McCorry believes her success can be attributed to her positive attitude.
"She can teach us all a lesson," he said.