Anne Sommers admits she sometimes forgets how difficult it used to be to simply walk.
Now a second-year student at the William & Mary School of Law, Sommers is far removed from her undergraduate days at Virginia Tech: days when a deteriorating hip condition forced her to use forearm crutches to get across campus. She still keeps those crutches-and the ratty leather shoes she wore as she dragged her feet a mile or more across the hilly Blacksburg campus-in her closet at her parents' Richmond home.
"The shoes are reminders and so are the forearm crutches," Sommers said. "To me it's really easy to forget that I wasn't always mobile. I look at some of those things to make sure I don't take it for granted."
It's easy to see why Sommers needs constant reminders about her past condition. Today, the petite 24-year-old who barely stands above 5-feet-1 is a state champion powerlifter, who is just weeks removed from setting a state record in the 114-pound female weight division by dead-lifting 303 pounds in a national qualifying event. In that same event, she set personal competitive bests by squatting 270 pounds and benching 126 pounds.
"She's had a lot of different things that she's put her mind to and she's always been able to surprise me," said her father, David Sommers. "She has always been a very strong-willed individual and tenacious is the word I think best describes her."
Born with acetabular dysplasia-a condition where the body's sockets are shallow and are not fully developed-Sommers spent much of her childhood in pain to just move around. As a youngster, she was forced to walk with braces and specially designed shoes-shoes she says looked "kind of like a Forrest Gump getup."
"I couldn't really run without pain but in my mind I was completely normal," Sommers said. "Nobody had identified my condition as a hip problem at that point and they thought it was something concentrated in my knees and feet."
As Sommers got older, the hip condition became worse. By the time she entered high school at the Governor's School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, walking became so piercing that she had trouble moving without any pain. The cartilage in her hips had deteriorated to the point that each step grinded bone on bone.
"Walking just became so excruciating," said Sommers, who "Every fourth or fifth step my leg would pop out of socket. Walking next to me sounded like popcorn."
When Sommers was a senior in high school, she met with Dr. William Jiranek, an orthopedic specialist in Richmond who pinpointed the problem. Jiranek recommended a new surgical procedure to reconstruct her hips. It would require breaking her pelvic bone and rotating the pieces to form a socket he would hold together with pieces of metal. However, each surgery came with potential physical problems and each surgery would require at least a week in the hospital and several months of intense rehabilitation.
Sommers had just been accepted to Virginia Tech and decided to delay the procedures. However, after a semester of painfully "crutching" across campus, Sommers returned to her parents home in Richmond and in January 1999 her right hip was reconstructed. The procedure left her immobilized for weeks in bed and it would be nearly two months before she could start putting weight on her newly constructed hip socket.
Sommers returned to Virginia Tech the following fall but still needed a cane to walk.
"I didn't realize how bad my left hip was until I had one side work efficiently," she said.
Sommers had her second surgery in May 2001, but it came with more complications-the procedure left her without feeling in her left thigh. After the first procedure, she knew the procedure could cause some numbness. She was ready to overcome the obstacle.
Doctors told her to attempt building strength back by first just sliding her legs across her sheets while lying in bed. But the friction of the sheets was too much, her father said.
"At first, she couldn't move her leg at all," said David Sommers, who initially brought in a piece of Plexiglas and held it under her legs. Anne would move them slightlly across the smooth surface. With each day, her will and strength increased, he said.
"She would say ‘I want to overcome this,'" David Sommers remembers.
By the fall 2001, Sommers was able to return to Virginia Tech. She continued improving and by the time she graduated in 2002, she no longer needed a cane. She also had gained an interest in disability law and decided on attending William & Mary.
"In terms of group identity, I no longer have a visible physical handicap but I went through that experience and I still feel a very strong connection with the disabled community," said Sommers, who now interns for a Williamsburg attorney who specializes in disability law. "If this is what I can do when I graduate, it will be worth it." Something else also happened during her rehabilitation -- Sommers started going to the gym to rebuild strength in her legs. The more time she spent in the gym, the stronger she became. A few years ago, someone suggested she lift weights competitively. Sommers got the approval from her doctor and in October 2003 she started working out seriously with her coach Henry Gerard, a competitive powerlifter in Newport News.
Last November, Sommers won the 114-pound female division in the USA Powerlifting (USAPL) Virginia State Open. Earlier this month, Sommers again won her weight division in the national qualifier for the women's national USAPL event next year.
"This is something where she can triumph by competing with herself," said her father, David Sommers. "I remember when she first got on crutches ... and I've told Anne that when you see someone go through something like this and be able to overcome it, independent from my bias as her father, it's just neat to know someone like that."
He added, "It gives the whole family great joy."