A winner at athletics, but more so in life

Published January 5, 2007

Brandon's Sue Moucha made quite a name for herself in the 1980s and '90s as a competitive athlete, winning more than 200 trophies in running, swimming and cycling events.

Injuries curbed the four-time Paralympian's competitive running, but she continues to succeed as a nationally recognized masters swimmer. At 49, she has no plans of letting age or cerebral palsy slow her down.

That's right, cerebral palsy. Moucha has produced an impressive resume of athletic accomplishments in disabled and able-bodied events even though she was born with a disability that limits her control of the muscles on the right side of her body.

Over breakfast at Village Inn, we talked about her passion for swimming, the misconceptions surrounding cerebral palsy and her intense drive to not only compete, but to win.

Pull up a chair and join us. How difficult was it to give up running?

I loved what running did for me socially, mentally, physically, but I just delved into swimming. About 10 or 15 years ago, I had my second stress fracture. I was at a function with my orthopedist and he drew on a napkin why I shouldn't run, so I listened to him. Swimming takes a lot of commitment and work and desire, but there's nothing else I want to do. Your movement is limited on the right side, but you swim an average of 4,000 meters every day. That's amazing.

And people don't believe me. I had a lady come watch me run because she just couldn't conceive that I was doing that. I used to be very self-conscious about what I looked like in the water because I don't have a full stroke like you would because of my right arm, but you just go and do it. I come from a very, very sports-minded family and I was always around sports and watching sports. What was life like as a child?

I always remember having my brace (until fifth grade). I'm still very quiet, but I used to be extremely shy. I always felt like I was different, but I had my sister - she's 15 months younger than I am - and we did everything together. Everybody else was always participating in sports and I wasn't. I was always watching. I never felt like I fit in. How did you get involved in sports?

My parents bought home a brochure from the Cerebral Palsy Center in Tampa and it was about disabled sports. Then I was offered a graduate assistantship in teaching for disabled sports. When I was at Texas Women's University, the coach for gold medalist high jumper Louise Ritter was there and he helped me with running. He suggested I go into able-bodied competitions and he told me in a whisper so that if I heard it, fine, and if I didn't, fine. It's amazing how people treat the disabled, but you just follow the avenues presented to you. Were there any mental obstacles you had to overcome?

No, I love to work at it. I went to a disabled sports competition up in Rhode Island, and I came in first in my running and swimming events and that triggered it. I've never been scared of competing. I just love it. What are you going to do, let the person next to you beat you? It sounds like your parents were inspirational.

They listened to the doctors and whatever I had to do, they made sure I got it. I had brothers and sisters and they brought me up like them. I had to do my chores around the house. I had to sweep the floor. You said earlier that you're shy, but you wanted this opportunity to tell your story, right?

I feel like people don't understand. Disabled, to me, is too general. I think there's a big misconception. One reason the Paralympics were formed was because our minds are fine. We've always had to explain ourselves to people that we aren't mentally disabled. We do things just like everybody else, we just have to learn how to adapt. I think there's a tremendous need to educate people. DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Sue is single and lives with her mother, Janet, whom she nominated for the Bucs Mother of the Year contest. Janet was chosen as a finalist. Janet has five swimming medals, including a gold medal and world record in the 4 x 50 freestyle relay at the 1998 World Disabled Swimming Championships. In 2005, she was the U.S. Masters Swimming 2005 Virtual Swim Series overall champion.