Oakton's Erin Hardtke Puts Her Ability on Display in Five Sports
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
A framed photograph sits on the kitchen counter of Erin Hardtke's Herndon home. It's a 10x14 image of Erin, a senior at Oakton High, playing volleyball. In the picture, her left arm is perfectly placed above the net, poised to deliver a vicious kill shot as two defenders, caught in midair, brace for impact.
"I love looking at that picture," says Erin's mother, Gretchen.
Gretchen often comes home to find the picture turned face down. Erin, 17, "hates" the photo, says her mom. "She has a really tough time seeing herself in print or in pictures."
Erin's right arm is also plainly visible in the image. The limb ends a few inches below her elbow because of a birth defect.
Despite her disability, Erin has developed into a five-sport anomaly, excelling in swimming, diving, basketball, volleyball and soccer. She's used each sport as her proving ground, trading self-doubt and questions of self-image for confidence-boosting moments of athletic accomplishment. Still, despite her varsity letters, Hardtke admits her condition has had a powerful impact on her high school experience. She says she has struggled to keep a positive self-image, saying she's found it difficult at times to "love myself."
"It's something I had no control over," said Erin, who lost her right arm to a condition called amniotic band syndrome, in which fetal parts, usually limbs or digits, become entrapped in fibrous amniotic bands while in utero.
Described by her parents as a "chatter box" when she was younger, Erin has become more withdrawn during her high school experience, choosing to shield her emotions as she learns to balance being disabled with being a teenager.
"I still have those moments when it's just a lot to take in, when it's really frustrating, when I want to give up, when it's really annoying, when I'm at my end," she said.
"We've always said, 'Thank God that she's naturally athletic, naturally beautiful and smart because those are positives,' " Gretchen said as she peered across the kitchen table at her husband, Bill. "Athletics evens the playing field for her. It makes her feel like an equal."
In her fourth year playing organized volleyball, Hardtke has become one of the Virginia AAA Northern Region's most feared outside hitters.
"That left hand is a thunderbolt," Oakton volleyball coach Steve Drumm said.
Left-handed hitters are particularly desirable in volleyball, according to George Mason University women's volleyball coach Pat Kendric, who became so enamored with Erin's hard hitting during a GMU volleyball camp this summer that she hooked her up with an invite-only tryout with the Women's U.S. Paralympic volleyball team.