When Megan Absten lost her arm in an ATV accident at 14, she felt helpless. Now, she uses her role as a Paralympic track and field star to help others find self-acceptance.
“When you’re 14 and you’re going through hormonal changes, the superficial problems get really inflated,” Absten, now 21, tells PEOPLE. “When I lost my arm, my immediate thoughts were, ‘How am I ever going to find a boyfriend?’ ‘What am I going to wear’ and ‘I’m scared to be in a bikini.’ ”
At that age, she says, being different felt like the worst thing a person could be. Then, she began to look around and see that she was far from alone.
“Finding role models like Paralympic athletes and Amy Purdy and seeing their success really got me through my grief,” she says.
With these examples before her, Absten set out to show people at her high school what athletes with disabilities could do. Because she was a star wrestler before the accident, she returned to the mat after losing her arm – but it didn’t turn out how she had hoped.
“Wrestling was impossible with one arm,” she says.
Unwilling to give up, she got back in to track and field the next year, and was quickly discovered by track coach Laurie Saunders. With Saunders as her trainer, she won two silver medals at the U.S. National Paralympics Track and Field meet in 2013.
“Athletics gave me back my confidence,” says Absten.
Now, ranked third in the world at long jump, Absten spent her summer training hard for Rio. But she didn’t forget the inspiring figures who helped her get back in the game. “I wanted to be one of those people,” she says.
In June, she paid that inspiration forward by partnering with Cetaphil for a surprise visit to Camp Wonder, a free summer camp for kids with serious and fatal skin disorders.
“After the accident, it took a while for me to get to a place where I felt comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “But when I did it was so liberating. I wanted to instill that self-acceptance in the minds of the kids at camp.”
During her visit, Megan shared an unvarnished account of her struggles after the accident, and how she ultimately found self-acceptance.
“I hope it helped them realize that they can pursue their passions and they don’t have to let something like the way they look hold them back,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, you’re all you’ve got and if you own your flaws you own your life.”