Senior Gabriel Weber learns new ways to be an adaptive athlete with the help of Beautifully Flawed retreat


Courtesy of Gabriel Weber

Senior Gabriel Weber raises her hand alongside other retreat-goers who have lost an arm or have been born without one. Spending a week with girls living with similar situations created an accepting space for Weber. “Sometimes I have a hard time putting on necklaces, and if I couldn’t do it, they understood; they didn’t question why I couldn’t do it,” Weber said. “One time I was doing my hair, and it took me four or five times to get it to where I liked it. I had a roommate who understood because she was also born with one arm. We just kept doing our hair, and it took forever. “

Senior Gabriel Weber was born with symbrachydactyly, a congenital abnormality that left her with only one hand. Growing up with a limb difference in a world made for two-handed people put Weber in many unique situations, from difficulties tying shoes to dealing with stares from strangers. 

Despite the rarity of her situation, there are many young girls living as amputees or with limb differences who are undergoing the same struggles as Weber. In October, Weber got the opportunity to spend a week in Del Mar, Calif. with girls living with similar situations under the leadership of professional surfer, author and shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton.

One thought was that I wasn’t whole, that I wasn’t all the way there, that I was only part of a human, ”

— senior Gabriel Weber

“I was a pretty active kid, and I liked to do a lot of stuff,” Weber said. “I think growing up was slightly harder for me because I felt kind of different, but I never felt out of

Courtesy of Gabriel Weber
On the final day of the week, Senior Gabriel Weber gets her makeup done to prepare for a professional photo shoot to celebrate the retreat.

place. I had some trouble accepting myself, [but] I wouldn’t say I was ever made to feel that way. It was just kind of what I thought growing up. One thought was that I wasn’t whole, that I wasn’t all the way there, that I was only part of a human.”

With time, Weber grew more comfortable in her skin and was able to accept herself as an individual with a limb difference.

“[I realized that] this is how I’m supposed to be,” Weber said. “It was hard growing up because I had to learn how to do everything, but now I just know how to do stuff. Another thing that has really helped me accept myself is proving to myself that I can do everything that everyone else can. I do field hockey and lacrosse, which has helped me significantly. I would say it was hard, but I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m comfortable.”

The retreat, Beautifully Flawed, focused on just that. A ‘healing and life-changing experience,’ the Beautifully Flawed retreat is designed to ‘unite and inspire young women ages 14-25 who face limb differences or the loss of a limb’ and to ‘uncover the beauty in every story.’ 

“Part of the reason the camp was so impactful was that I got to see from another perspective of someone who was born with all four limbs but then lost [a limb],” Weber said. “Some of the girls had just lost [a limb] like five or six months ago, so it was really raw. Part of it was the emotion that was still there and learning how to do stuff.”

As part of the leadership team for Beautifully Flawed, Hamilton spent the week closely involved with the girls. For many of the girls, this week was not their first time hearing about Hamilton, as she is a well known spokesperson for amputees. 

“I saw Soul Surfer when I was really young, [and] I read the book like four times. I was kind of obsessed with her,” Weber said. “Honestly, I thought she was so cool. I admired her so much for persevering, and I think that she was part of the reason that I did some of the things that I did in life. She has inspired me to persevere in life and try new things and not be afraid to do stuff just because I have one hand.”

Despite her status, Hamilton made it clear that the week was not about her fame; the week was about the girls.

“I kind of saw Bethany Hamilton as a sort of celebrity before, but coming back from it, I see her as an athlete,” Weber said. “She was with us the whole time. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to do her own workout, and then, she would come to ours. She was also surfing throughout the day. She really didn’t want to be seen as someone who was on a pedestal or someone that was unreachable. She wanted to be relatable, and she wanted to talk to us. She wanted to be a part of everything and help us through whatever we needed help with.”

Courtesy of Gabriel Weber
After a day of learning to surf from volunteers, the girls participating in the retreat crowd around professional surfer Bethany Hamilton to take a picture

The retreat allowed for three full days in California and consisted of crafts, CrossFit and of course, surfing. 

“The second day was a huge surfing day,” Weber said. “The whole day we were outside. Everyone had two instructors with them who knew how to surf, and they would help push you when the wave came. You would just get up and hold yourself up there.”

Limb differences had very little bearing on the girls’ surfing capabilities. 

“One of the things that stood out to me was that they did not really adapt [the surfing],” Weber said. “Everyone there is really adaptive as people [because] we have been adapting either our whole lives or for a number of months so it’s just something you learn how to do. With me, I had to compensate a lot for my sense of balance, and I was more sore on one side the day after. [But] I wouldn’t say that anybody struggled. Girls with leg differences would just throw on their prosthetic and go for it. I think it was a good experience for everyone just to see that they could do it.” 

Out of 58 girls that applied for the retreat, 21 got in, and their relationships did not end at the end of the week. 

  I’ve kept in contact with a lot of [the girls], texting them and snapchatting,” Weber said. “The other girls stories really impacted me, [and] I think that meeting them has changed my life. Knowing what they’ve gone through has just inspired me.”

Courtesy of Gabriel Weber
Senior Gabriel Weber sits with the other girls from the retreat who had been born with half an arm.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that Weber took from the retreat was that having a limb difference is not something that should hold you back.

“They expected us to do everything,” Weber said. “They called us ‘adaptive athletes.’ I appreciated that a lot because I can do burpees, I can do push-ups, I didn’t need to be treated like I was any different. We got jump ropes there that I can velcro to my left arm so I could jump rope. I used to tie one end of the jump rope to a chair; It’s much better with the velcro. They pushed us to explore our limits, which I really appreciated. I feel like I want to do that all the time, but sometimes, I’m not sure how. They showed me different ways that I can be an adaptive athlete, and that I can just do everything in a different way than everyone else, but still do it.”