Through Adversity, Ayanna Donwerth Became A Runner At Heart

By now, everyone has seen her run. She has competed at many of the top indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country meets in Texas, including the state cross country meet. It could be that you've asked yourself why she just has one arm or what her story is. Ayanna Donwerth is just your typical high school runner, but she just went through a lot to get there.

Ayanna's life began very differently than most of us, as she was born in a different country and adopted. She was born in New Delhi, India and mom Mayla said she knew about her immediately after the birth mom left her at the orphanage in New Delhi. At four months of age, the Indian government granted Mayla legal guardianship and she went to India for 10 days to pick Ayanna up and bond with her. "I took her with me to the Taj Mahal by bus, that was interesting to say the least," Mom said. She was able to bring her home to the US when Ayanna was eight months old. Once back in the US and granted citizenship, they completed the adoption process by the time she was eighteen months old.

Ayanna has always known the entire adoption story. Back then, in India, to be adopted internationally there had to be a four month waiting period in case the birth mother changed her mind, then the baby had to be rejected three times by Indian couples in the country and only then could she be offered to Mayla. In India, Ayanna was labeled "untouchable" because her birth mother was an unwed Hindu woman, Ayanna was a girl, she was handicapped, and her skin was darker than was preferred in Northern India. Because of all this mom said, "I knew she would be offered to me immediately after the four month waiting period, which was exactly what happened."

Mayla was correct, she was able to adopt Ayanna because no one stepped up to adopt her. She came into this world with everything going for her being against her, except for Mayla. "I was able to see photos of her with the women at the orphanage that cared for her while I waited for the Indian government to grant my legal guardianship and for travel arrangements to be made."

In the photos, Mayla was able to see the factors that deterred Ayanna from being adopted in India. She was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome/Constriction Ring Syndrome commonly referred to as Streeter Dysplasia. It is a complex, congenital disorder characterized by constricting rings to an extremity that likely results in amputation. This occurs in utero early on after the affected parts of the body have formed normally. The arms and legs are most often affected with this disorder and there is no known cause. The occurrence of this is rare; it occurs approximately 1 in 15,000 live births and no two cases are alike.

Related: Amniotic Band Syndrome

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Becoming a Runner

Having one arm partially amputated did not stop her from becoming a runner. When she was younger and running sprints, she found using the blocks put her at an unfair disadvantage, so they made her special blocks to put her on an even playing field. Even with the accommodation, Ayanna decided to discontinue competing in sprints and focus on distance events.

In the 3rd and 4th grades, Ayanna did a couple of fun runs, but mom decided when she was a 7th grader in Palo Alto, California to really get her in to running. It was in the 8th grade when she she fell in love with track while she was running the 4x800 Relay at the USATF Junior Olympics in California. Upon moving to Texas, she started high school, and as a freshman and sophomore was part of the Leander High School track team which further fueled her love of running. Freshman year in cross country, Donwerth got down to a 18:58 in the 5K. The family then moved to Liberty Hill when she was a junior due to her mom really wanting land for animals and the place they found was not zoned for Leander, so new adventures awaited her.

This past fall, during her first cross country season at Liberty Hill, Donwerth finished third individually at the UIL Region 4 XC Championships, qualifying for the state meet. Along with her teammate Zaila Smith, who was second individually, Donwerth helped Liberty HIll win the team championships at Regionals and qualified the entire team for the state meet.

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Dealing With Adversity

When Ayanna was a year old, they started going to the Shriners Hospital to teach her how to use prosthetics. She started with the basic non-functioning arm and worked her way up to using one with a "claw" hand and shoulder strap. She had many physical therapy classes to learn how to use the prosthetics even though she was less than two years old. Mom said, "she would often pull the arm off and just go without." Ayanna eventually stopped using it altogether because she did everything just fine without it. She was able to button her clothes and play on the monkey bars. She had her own way of accommodating herself.

Shriner's recommended coming back at age five to be fit with a version of an arm that was a military grade myoelectric version, which means that the arm would be externally powered and controlled with electrical signals generated naturally by her own muscles. Mom said they went back at age five, but she was still too small and the new arm would be too heavy, make her off balance, and that they should try again when she was older. As Ayanna got older, she decided she didn't want or need the prosthetic arm. The toughest part now for her is driving. It's hard for her to reach over and turn the key. However according to mom, "she has already adjusted her own way and you'd never know she was any different."

Running, even though it is her passion is another challenge that she has conquered. She has to regularly see a special chiropractor to help her with her alignment while competing and training. Mom said, "when she is tired, she will compensate by letting her shoulder drop because of the weight and balance difference of only having one full arm and it sometimes affects her form and posture."  Ayanna always tries to remain aware of this so she can adjust mid-race before it slows her down too much. The regular visits to the chiropractor help her with that sort of muscle memory.

Mom and dad raised her to always know her truth and they supported her in all things that others often assumed she couldn't do. They have always treated her like their other kids, no different. 

Ayanna used to be self-conscious of her size, appearance, and arm. She got made fun of a lot in school for having one arm when she was younger and says that even today she has a lot of people that look at her and comment wondering what happened to her. She said she gets compared a lot to "Soul Surfer" and that gets on her nerves, but she doesn't let it bother her. "Yeah, I have one arm, but like honestly it helps me. It's a part of who I am and others say I inspire them by having one arm and running," she said.

She's learned over the years to become more confident in herself and not let people's words tear her down. She now understands how to be a good friend, how to be loyal and honest, and how to stay focused on her end goal. When others have told her it must be hard to run with one arm having your body tilted, she said she does things to make it where her body isn't tilted where her form is better than her competitors. it just makes her more determined to prove them wrong.

It doesn't take long for her competitors to see that having one arm doesn't prevent her from being fast. At first they feel sorry for her and underestimate her until she beats them, but very quickly they realize she's a force to be reckoned with. It even baffles her when people look at her different or treat her different, laughing she said,  "you run with your legs." She feels with two arms or one and a half arms that she is on an even playing field on the track. She doesn't focus on that though, she said it's all about if you really put in the work or not. She commented, "you really see who has the heart for the sport when they are going out racing each other, who really wants it."

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Young Runner at Heart

Ayanna is one of the ones who as she said, "really wants it;" she puts in the work to be as good as she can be. As a family, they work around Ayanna's running schedule. Mom has enlisted a private coach that helps with her exercise/workout plans, nutrition advice, and injury prevention. They pair that with whatever her current school team is doing daily as well. Mom feels they support Ayanna best by being her biggest cheerleader and helping her to follow her dreams. Last year, Ayanna wanted to try marathons but was too young so she entered all the 10K and half marathons she could find. In all those races, she placed first in her division with only a couple of second place finishes. She also recently ran the Austin Marathon and came in first in her division earning a spot in the Boston Marathon, but due to age restrictions will not be able to compete.

Mom feels her biggest strength is her competitive nature. She said, "she goes out there with the intention of winning. She doesn't always get first place in all her races for UIL sanctioned events, but she nearly always medals." Ayanna understands there will always be someone better and faster. She has also begun to understand that she is often the one that others look at to try to beat. This drives her to train harder and smarter.

Scholastically she has come a long way as well and now almost posting a 4.0 GPA, in her junior year. But, mom still feels she struggles finding something outside of running to do. "She is so focused on training and running that sometimes she forgets to take time to be a kid," according to Mayla. Outside of track, her interests lie in criminal justice and watching crime shows. She also enjoys Netflix, watching documentaries about running or things that are going on in the world. Ayanna always seems to return to running when she is bored or has free time. She runs for the fun of it. 

Earlier this year, Ayanna competed in her first steeplechase race. She started out in the back after the first barrier to eventually work her way up to fighting for the win at the last two hurdles

Speaking of fun, Ayanna thought she'd try her hand at Steeplechase at the Lovejoy Invitational and the end result surprised even her. During the first lap, she was in last place because she had never jumped a barrier before and had no idea what she was doing. By the end of the race, she was in the lead and began to adjust to the barriers and the water jump. She finished the race in second place by one stride, but you'd have thought she won it all. Mom said, "I've never seen her so smiley after not winning a race." She still talks about that race, how much fun she had and can't wait for the opportunity to do it all again. She has now decided it's an event she'd like to add to her repertoire in college along with distance races and cross country.

With bedroom walls full of medals, trophies and photos to commemorate her running experiences, Ayanna is making her family very proud of all she has accomplished. She would like to continue her running career in college at a Division 1 school commenting that her dream school is the University of Texas and possibly the University of Colorado as a close second. She lightly touched on running pro. Smiling very brightly she said, "it would be cool to go pro but I don't want to think about that right now, I just want to think about my season."

With the 2020 track and field season currently suspended, Ayanna continues to train. This summer, she will spend six weeks in Colorado training at higher altitude with Team Prep USA.

Even though she has experienced a lot and persevered through more than most, she is still just a young runner at heart.