Michael Valencia Jr. swung his way into a top spot on his varsity high school golf team last year, the only freshman who earned the ability to travel to away tournaments.That year he also tried out for the Elk Grove High School freshman football team and landed as one of the kickers. This year he wants to play linebacker, fullback and kicker on the junior varsity team.
Michael has been doing all these things with a prosthetic leg. When he was born, Michael’s parents, Karen Valencia and Michael Valencia Sr., didn’t know if their son would be able to walk. At birth, Michael’s baseball-sized left foot was so swollen it couldn’t fit into newborn sleepers or baby shoes.
Michael’s pediatrician referred him to Shriners Hospitals for Children – Northern California, where he’s been a patient since he was a few weeks old. Michael was born with hemihyperplasia, a rare congenital disorder that causes asymmetric overgrowth of one or more regions of the body. In Michael’s case, an overgrowth of fatty tissue throughout his body’s left side caused him to be born with an oversized foot.
Without a cure for the condition, Michael had his left foot amputated at 15 months. At age 6, he had surgery to slow down the growth of his leg. Both procedures were done at Shriners. Rick Wilcox, a certified prosthetist at Shriners in Sacramento, has been making Michael’s prosthetic legs – nearly 20 in all – since he was a baby. Even though Michael has both legs, he needs a prosthetic leg that goes to his knee to support an ankle and foot.
The Valencias say they are grateful for the care they’ve received at Shriners. “They’ve been a godsend right from the beginning,” Michael Valencia Sr. says.
Michael says he appreciates how Wilcox always asks for his input on the design of his leg. “They’re there to help your whole body and make you feel more comfortable with yourself,” Michael says.Wilcox says his goal when fabricating Michael’s legs is to make his ability to walk and run look symmetrical. A prosthesis should feel like an intrinsic part of Michael’s body. “I want (his movement) to be as smooth and as undetectable as possible,” Wilcox says.
Karen Valencia says that Rick “is just like us; he wants Michael to do anything he wants. What we’ve tried with Michael is to make sure if there’s something he wants to do or learn or try, we’re going to make sure he gets the opportunity. We don’t want to be the ones to say, ‘No.’”
Michael learned to walk at 10 months and ride a bike at age 5. He played on youth soccer and baseball leagues. He played on a school basketball team. He also played tennis and skateboarded.
Michael started accompanying his dad to the golf course at age 2. By age 4, his parents bought him his first golf clubs. At 8, they signed him up for a learn-and-play golf league and he’s played ever since. During his freshman year, Michael, 15, who will be a sophomore this fall, made the golf team. But in order to play in away tournaments, players have to score in the top six during
a qualifying round. He tried several times and missed the spot by one or two strokes, says Clifford Cheathon Sr., a golf professional and head varsity golf coach at Elk Grove High School, which has only one golf team. When Michael broke into the sixth spot, he held it for the rest of season.
Michael says he set out to be a top player on the team. He likes the sportsmanship in golf, he says. “When you’re on the golf course you’re there to be a gentleman,” Michael says. “I’m more of a gentleman than I was before I joined golf. It’s changed me.”
Michael’s scores are in the 80s and 90s, equivalent to an average adult golfer. “Michael has great potential,” Cheathon says. Golf requires mental toughness, concentration, patience and a respectful attitude, Cheathon says.
If Michael can sharpen his game to par, his coach says he could compete at divisional tournaments. “If he does really well, if he puts the time in, it’s a very special story,” Cheathon says.