Valentina Baez Sosa, MD, shares how her early life experiences in gymnastics and coaching have helped her become a better hematology/oncology physician.
I used to be an elite gymnast. I competed all over the world, including the Olympics, for my home country of Venezuela. I was never the tallest or the strongest or the most flexible gymnast on the team, but I was small and somehow graceful. My favorite event was floor exercises, where I could escape into the music and lose myself in the dancing, jumping, and flipping.
World-class gymnasts start young. I was just 5 years old when I began training. It was fun—a lot of fun, actually—but the work was grueling. I trained up to 8 hours a day, and 8 hours every day before major competitions.
The discipline and commitment required to compete at the highest level proved valuable in multiple areas of my life, including school. There was no time for naps or television. I remember doing my homework at school because I had to go to the gym and train for at least 4 hours every afternoon. Planning life around those long hours in the gym taught me time management skills that proved invaluable when juggling my responsibilities as an oncology fellow.
Unfortunately, I had to retire at 16 because of multiple injuries. I twisted both ankles, injured my back and right knee, and fractured multiple fingers. Eventually, I became too old and too injured to continue, but this allowed me to focus on school.
Gymnastics gave me the discipline and commitment to do my best in all the diff erent areas of my life. Therefore, I decided to apply to medical school, which became the most important competition of my life. I attended the Universidad Central de Venezuela, where 19,000 applicants competed for 150 medical school spots. Getting in felt like the most crucial gold medal I'd ever won.
While in medical school, my former coach asked me to join her as a gymnastics coach for the Special Olympics teams. I accepted her off er and managed to teach gymnastics 3 days every week whenever I wasn't on call. I worked with 17 athletes who had intellectual disabilities, mostly Down syndrome and autism, from ages 8 to 32.
In 2011, I became the National Team's head coach for the World Summer Special Olympic Games. I traveled with 8 athletes, all with Down syndrome, to Athens, Greece. As with any national team, we trained together, slept together, ate together, and lived together. I had to make sure the athletes took all their medications as prescribed and help them get dressed for the training sessions and competitions.
My 8 gymnasts won 30 Special Olympic medals: 15 gold, 8 silver, and 7 bronze. In 2012, 6 athletes brought home 22 medals from the Pan-American and Caribbean games, including 13 gold.
The transformative power of sports to infuse confidence, improve health, and inspire a sense of competition is at the core of Special Olympics. The experience changed my life completely. When trying to find any available extra time to teach, I realized that I learned more from these athletes than what I could ever teach.
Sometimes people ask me what the biggest challenge is when training athletes with special needs and intellectual disabilities; the honest answer is just patience. They can achieve anything and everything asked of them. It takes a little more practice and a little more time, but eventually, they will get there.
On the other hand, I learned so much from these athletes and their unconditional love, open hearts, spirit, and dedicated and supportive families. I have no words to describe how grateful I am for having them in my life. They still own a piece of my heart.
Outside of gymnastics, my athletes are very high-functioning professionals. The younger ones went to integrated schools, and most of the older athletes work in multiple areas. One, for example, works as an accountant for one of the largest national banks; another for an internationally recognized soda company. They venture outside the barriers of society by choosing courage over comfort every day.
Today, I can recognize and appreciate how my early life experiences have made and will make me a better hematology/oncology physician. I can see how some of the tools I learned, like patience and the power of listening, are extremely helpful in guiding patients through receiving their diagnosis, treatment, follow-up, and even their end-of-life care. It has given me a greater awareness of the mental challenges and concerns for a patient’s quality of life and their family’s experiences.
The compassion I developed while working with people with special needs taught me how to lean forward, sit down at the same level, and communicate effectively to make sure my patients and their families understand my message. Moreover, teaching is something I enjoy doing inside and outside of gymnastics and will continue to do as part of my career as a medical educator.
I strongly believe that I am the best version of myself when I’m helping others, especially those in need. Despite the long hours, multiple calls, and sleepless nights, I always remember that no matter what I want to do in life, I have to keep going, keep training, be patient, take risks, and keep doing it. With wholehearted commitment and perseverance, anything is possible. I learned that from the best—my athletes.
Valentina Baez Sosa, MD: Hematology/Oncology Fellow at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Washington, DC