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."