Children’s curiosity helped Tessa Popoff find her way.
Popoff was accustomed to kids staring at her when she was out in public. Some would approach with questions, while others were told to steer clear of her by their parents.
But one incident really stood out in the Langley woman’s mind.
Popoff was in a clothing store when a little girl sat down beside her and began peppering her with questions.
She was shocked when the girl’s mother dragged her out of the store.
“The little girl was crying, ‘I don’t know what I did,’” Popoff recalled.
“The mom was telling her how rude she was and how horrible it was that she would talk to people in public like that.”
“It was kind of sad to see.”
And for Popoff, a member of Canada’s sitting women’s volleyball team, it was her desire to change people’s perceptions which helped her find her way.
Popoff was 18 years old and in her final year of high school, getting ready to embark on the next chapter of her life, when everything changed in an instant.
On her way to Sun Peaks resort for a weekend of snowboarding, the car carrying Popoff and four friends lost control after taking a corner too quickly and ended up rolling.
“I was in the middle backseat when we flipped,” she said.
“I braced myself on the headrest and the car caved in and severed my hand instantly.”
One person in the car suffered a fractured collarbone while the others had scarring and scratches.
None of the others’ injuries were as serious as what Popoff endured.
She spent a week in hospital and had her right arm amputated below the elbow.
Twelve years have passed, yet Popoff has never gone through a ‘why me?’ phase.
“It was one of those ‘here’s life, deal with it and move on (situations),’” she explained.
“You either learn to adapt or you dwell on it.”
Before the crash, Popoff had always been active, playing sports recreationally throughout high school, and was big on outdoor sports, such as white water kayaking, rock climbing and hiking.
Rather than let her situation overwhelm her life, Popoff set out to regain her independence.
“I still continued to do everything I could, so I learned how to tie my own shoes with one hand, get dressed, do everything I possibly could,” she said.
“I still did my kayaking, my rock climbing, everything else afterwards.
“I just continued with my life.”
Prior to the accident, Popoff had wanted to get into carpentry or construction as her career, but that was no longer an option.
It was her interaction with children which guided her to a career in early childhood education.
“Kids are so open and honest about everything; they just ask you questions, no matter what it is,” she explained.
“So I got lots of questions: ‘where did your hand go, you can’t do anything anymore, I bet you can’t do this.’
“It steered me in the direction of getting into child care, to work with kids, to prove I could do everything.”
For the past three years, the 30-year-old has owned and operated the Learning Circle, a childcare centre in Langley.
Popoff strived to create an environment which allows children to be open-minded and curious, and to show them that they can overcome adversity and, through perseverance, can achieve whatever they set their minds to.
She remembered one child looking at her and saying Popoff ‘couldn’t do anything’ because she only had one hand.
“When circle time came and we all sat around, I will never forget the silence that filled the room, the wide eyes and excited faces as I told the children the stories of my adventures and how I figured out ways to do it all,” Popoff said.
“I showed them the pictures of my adventures of me rock climbing, white water kayaking, and I even showed them my little accomplishments: tying my shoes with one hand or playing the guitar.”
Last summer, Popoff was visiting family in Edmonton when she came across the Canadian women’s sitting volleyball team, who were in town for a training camp.
Sitting volleyball has six players per side and follows the same rules as volleyball, although on a smaller court and with the nets lowered to three metres.
After watching the team practice, Popoff was intrigued and this past spring, she attended the national team’s selection camp, making the final nine-person roster.
She left for Toronto on July 31 and will represent Canada at the Parapan American Games in Toronto, which run Aug. 7 to 15.
Canada is competing against the United States, Cuba and Brazil at the Games, which serve as a regional qualifier for next summer’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As the host country, Brazil has already qualified and the top two of the other three countries will join them at the Games.
Popoff had played volleyball recreationally back in high school and admits sitting volleyball is challenging.
The only time she wears a prosthetic arm is when she is playing volleyball.
“It is something new to learn and overcome,” she said about the sport.
“But it is a great way to showcase the sport and inspire other people. I get to be a role model for my daughter (five-year-old Ella) and all those other kids.”
“Sitting volleyball is very fast compared to indoor volleyball and for new athletes, it can be challenging to keep up the pace of play,” said Ian Halliday, the team’s assistant coach and high performance director.
“Tessa did not have a strong volleyball background when she joined the team but has improved in her understanding of the game and different game situations.
“She is always looking for ways to improve her personal game and contribute more to the team and team systems.”
And Popoff fills a specific role on Team Canada.
“Tessa’s size will be a big part of her contribution to the team,” Halliday explained.
“As one of the tallest athletes on a relatively smaller team, she will be relied upon to be a presence at the net and put some pressure on the other team’s attackers.”
Popoff admits she had no idea how life would turn out for her the day she lost part of her arm.
“I would never have imagined (I would be doing as well as I am doing), but you never know where life is going to take you,” she said.
“When I got into my accident, I never thought I would be married with kids, running my own business and trying to qualify for the Paralympics. It is exciting.”
Training for the competition isn’t always easy, especially with just two of the players from B.C.
To get ready, Popoff has been working with a personal trainer, Melissa Kabell, as well as with a few different coaches out at the Olympic Oval in Richmond. Her family also helps in her training.
Popoff’s husband, Justin Schulz, and their daughter, Ella, will accompany her to Toronto.