Heading off to her freshman year at Statesboro (Georgia) High School, Tazmerria Wilson had one very simple but meaningful goal – ride the regular school bus with her siblings. That mission accomplished, she now has a new goal as the last stretch of her senior year unfolds.
Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much to golfers who have left that milestone in their rearview mirror, but Taz Wilson isn’t like most golfers. Taz stands out just by standing at all on her unique prosthetic legs.
Taz was born without a tibia bone – the large shin bone that connects the ankle to the knee – in each leg, a condition called “bilateral tibial hemimelia.” It left her with severe clubbed feet and a predicted bleak future.
“They said she wouldn’t live to be 2 years old,” said her mother, Chirika Wilson. “She’s still here and about to be 18 years old and still going strong.”
Carrying her toddler everywhere, Chirika sought out answers from specialists and they all suggested the same option – amputation and prosthetics. “The very first doctor we saw never touched her and just looked at her and said, ‘We’ve got to cut these off,’” Chirika said. “I looked around another eight or nine months to get second and third opinions and everybody that did X-rays said the same thing.”
So just three days before her third birthday, Taz underwent a nine-hour surgery to remove both of her legs from above the knee. They broke her hips to even out her posture. They sent her home in a body cast for six weeks.
“By eight weeks she was jumping on the trampoline and climbing on and off the couch,” her mother said. “She’s non-stop.”
Wilson received her first pair of prosthetic legs when she was in kindergarten at age 5. The middle of Chirika’s seven children (five sisters and one younger brother), Taz wasn’t treated any differently by her siblings.
She really wanted to play basketball, but considering she has no knee joints, mobility and balance in her prosthetics is an even bigger challenge. Insurance won’t pay for her physical therapy.
“Being above the knee there’s less stability so you have to have a lot more lower-body control and I kind of get off-balance a lot,” Taz said.
At the end of her eighth-grade school year, her school therapist Don Garrick made a suggestion that could serve as a way to help with her balance – golf.
“I’ve just liked (golf) … I’m a nature person and love being outdoors, so I just loved the scenery of it – the field of golf itself. It was really awkward the first couple of strokes I did, but it made me want to get better over time.” – Taz Wilson
Garrick, who served as an adapted physical education teacher for Bulloch County schools, borrowed a set of golf clubs and started teaching Taz how to swing over the summer at Forest Heights Country Club. While it wasn’t basketball, the challenge of trying to hit a golf ball resonated with her – “I made good contact with the ball sometimes,” she said – and she stuck with it.
“I’ve just liked it since then,” she said. “I’m a nature person and love being outdoors, so I just loved the scenery of it – the field of golf itself.
“It was really awkward the first couple of strokes I did, but it made me want to get better over time. When I first swung the club I got off balance. But Mr. Don said it’s okay and keep trying and you’ll get better.”
Said her mother: “She was a bit of a loner and confined to her bedroom and I was so happy to see her out and wanting to go because she was turning into a hermit. It was very good to see her out and interact.”
Her freshman year at Statesboro High School, Wilson tried out for the girls’ golf team and made it. While she didn’t compete often and generally shot in the low 70s for nine holes, she kept on practicing and gaining more confidence in her balance and her game.
“It was all kind of new to me still, and I was trying to get the feel of it,” she said. “I didn’t get much experience my freshman year. I’ve improved a lot, I’d say.”
“All things considered, she’s done pretty well,” said Chad Farrell, her golf coach since junior year. “One thing you can say about Taz is she comes to practice ready to listen and try new things and learn. The courage she has to get out there and continue to play, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Farrell admitted that he was worried about coaching someone with Wilson’s challenges when he took over as the Statesboro golf coach last season.
“I knew of Taz even before I coached and I had a lot of anxiety about her playing and coaching her and how difficult it would be to work around some of those issues,” he said. “But I’m amazed by her and the biggest thing is it’s a testament to her spirit and her courage because a lot of people in that situation wouldn’t even attempt to do something like that. I’d probably be sitting home on my couch mad at the world, so I give her great props for that. The tenacity she has to keep coming back makes you as a coach want to find a way to help her more.”
With Farrell’s help, Taz is constantly trying new strategies to improve her balance and, consequently, her swing. Unlevel ground is a particular hazard for her, even with her latest Freedom Plie 3 microprocessor prosthetics, to which she is one of the youngest adopters. Because of her balance, she has a tendency to not follow through and use the club as a crutch to maintain her balance.
She’s still getting adjusted to her new prosthetics, but thanks to school physical therapist Tina Rigdon she has been able to navigate using the regular school bus and is getting closer to spending the whole day without her crutches.
“They’re pretty high-tech and fancy,” she says of her prosthetics, which automatically adjust to any stumbles and have a regular foot over top of the spring curved base so she can paint her toenails.
Wilson still averages about 112 for 18 holes and has her sights set on breaking 100 this season.
“With golf anyone wants to lower their score,” she said. “My goal before pandemic hit was to get off my crutches before senior year and I’m still working toward that.”
Farrell also helped bring out another goal in Wilson – to inspire others who deal with similar challenges. To that end and with Farrell’s help, Wilson made a huge step outside of her comfort zone and put her story out there.
During the pandemic shutdown last school year, the inaugural Hope Givers Film Challenge was started to help combat the isolation and mental health challenges COVID-19 brought to students and educators across America. The initiative wanted to foster connections between students and trusted adults in schools by producing short 30- to 90-second films to develop storytelling capabilities featuring hope and resilience.
Farrell, who is also Statesboro High’s audio visual and film teacher, approached Wilson about entering the Hope Givers challenge over the summer. They produced a 90-second video about Wilson’s golf endeavors.
“For her to even participate and come out of her shell that way, it was just a blessing,” said her mother.
Their entry was selected first runner-up overall and won the Hope Givers Storytelling Award. That earned Taz a $600 grant – which she wants to apply toward getting manual controls in her car to allow her to drive – and her film “Taz’s Story” ran during the Hope Givers series Episode 7 called “Resiliency: One Step At A Time” on Georgia Public Broadcasting in September.
“Winning the Hope Film Challenge Storytelling Award grant means to me that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Taz told GPB.
“For the ones out there similar to me, you’ve just got to keep striving. People are gonna talk, it’s gonna be scary because I’ve been through a lot myself, getting off-balance and being in pain is the worst. But you’ve just got to keep going and keep praying, if you believe in God, and just hope for the best.”
Taz said she found confidence in putting her story out for public consumption after struggling “to not feel like enough.”
“I wanted to tell my story to be an inspiration to others and for those out there who think they aren’t enough when truly they are enough,” she said. “And to allow them to see a light that shines within them so they can just go out and be great.
“It can be challenging for people like me to want to embrace themselves. … In previous years I wasn’t as confident in myself. I basically hid my legs and wasn’t really as proud of who I am now. I wanted people to know that you can do anything you put your mind to if you work at it.”
The response she’s gotten only emboldens her more. People she’s never met come up to her and express gratitude for her inspiring story. Teammates have suggested she become a motivational speaker.
“I’ve inspired so many to get up and try new things,” she said. “I have people I don’t know and they see me and it lights up their whole world.”
Taz has bigger goals than just trying to break 100 on the golf course. Her dream is to go to the University of Georgia or Georgia State University next year to study criminal justice with a long-term goal of perhaps becoming an FBI agent one day. She was emboldened to dream bigger last summer when she went away on her own to the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta’s Camp No Limb-itations and threw herself into ziplining, archery, horseback riding and swimming with campers just like her.
“I am terrified about her going off to college; she’s adamant about trying to get into UGA,” her mom said.
Given how far Taz has come already, however, there’s no reason to doubt her breaking any barriers either on the golf course or off it.
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