simone biles hero

In the Beginning

Anxious about making a change in the year ahead? Take heart from these 14 achievers who dared to start anew.

It’s January, and the slate is clean. This is the time of year when, as Emily Dickinson would say, we dwell in possibility. More salads. Less binge-watching. A new class. A dream job. But there’s dwelling, and then there’s doing. To find the inspiration to take that first step, we sought out doers. Whether they’ve created beauty from whole cloth, debuted on the biggest stage, rebuilt after catastrophe, or made the most of a new heart, the people interviewed here know all about the act of starting—or starting over. Here, in reflections that have been condensed and edited for clarity, they reveal their emotions, their insecurities, and the lessons they learned along the way. And since we can use all the motivation we can get, we’d love to hear about your beginnings, too. Send us a note at letters@southwestmag.com. Here’s to a bold 2019.

Simone Biles performed a vault that made history last fall at the world gymnastics championships—and became the first woman to win four all-around world titles.

After the 2016 Olympics, I was ready to try something new that would continue to push me to be at my best. In November 2017, I decided to upgrade my vault. It was scary, but I’d rather fail trying than regret never trying at all. The new move—a half-twist once I hit the vault table and a double twist in the air—had never been done by a woman in competition. It took about four months to get the timing of my speed, height off the vault table, and rotation of my body all in sync. After that, training was about trying it over and over to develop muscle memory. You fall so many times but have to pick yourself up. At the world championships, I was nervous. But my muscle memory from training kicked in, and it was perfect! The icing on the cake is that now the vault is called “The Biles.” But I am not done challenging myself. As my grandfather always used to say, “Let tomorrow find you better than today.”

After losing a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2009, Army veteran Jen Lee became a sled hockey champion. Last May, he graduated from college.

Everything I did in the military, I loved. I got to jump out of an airplane in Airborne School. I got to jump out of helicopters. On the day of my accident, I remember lying there. Will I be able to walk again? Will I be able to do all the activities I used to love? Will I be able to serve my country? But once I began rehab with injured service members from Iraq and Afghanistan, I had a totally different perspective of what life’s like for amputees. It lifted my spirits. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for wounded warrior organizations like Operation Comfort and the injured veterans I rehabbed with.

You can still do whatever you want to do. Sled hockey was a therapeutic way for me to release stress and move forward in rehab. You’re challenging yourself, physically and mentally. The sport is also about team skills, the communication and the camaraderie.

Committing to school was challenging in a different way. It’s like a totally different kind of mental stress. Luckily, the University of Texas had a good core of student veterans, people who would really take their time to help each other out. Because you can’t do it alone—doesn’t matter if you want to learn how to play hockey, or if you need to learn how to walk. That’s something I found out. Everyone is going to have your back, but you have to take that initial step. You have to get out of that hospital bed.

Domee Shi became the first woman to direct a Pixar short. While making Bao, she learned about mastering the big picture.

As a director, the most important thing is to be honest and communicative. The worst thing is to pretend like you know what you’re talking about and lead your team down the wrong path when it would have just been easier if you were upfront. That way you can involve everyone in solving the problem together. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions—you’re not expected to know everything. And surround yourself with people who are way more talented than you. We asked my mom to come in to Pixar twice to do dumpling-making classes for the crew. It was kind of surreal—I was like, Whoa, I’m making a movie with my mom that’s sort of about my mom. But I thought it was really helpful and important for the animators, effects artists, and everyone else to just get in there and observe and study her technique so we could replicate it as accurately as possible. Paying attention to those little details—like how she folded the dough, how she rolled it out—grounded the short, made it feel more real, and made the character feel like an empathetic, believable person, not just a cartoony character.

Read an extended interview with Shi here: “The Art of Animation”

Marley Dias, 13 (she turns 14 on Jan. 3), is shaking up the publishing world. In 2015, she launched a campaign called #1000BlackGirlBooks with the goal of increasing diversity in children’s literature. Last year, she wrote Marley Dias Gets It Done and So Can You!, a guide for kids on getting involved.

I’ve always had access, through my parents, to diverse stories, and that has definitely made me a kinder person toward those who are different from me. For people who only read about their experience, they’re not able to see the importance of other people’s stories and to appreciate them for being as beautiful as they are.  In fifth grade, my teacher assigned a series of books. All of these had white boys and their dogs as the main characters. I say that jokingly now, but at the time, I was very frustrated because I did not see black girls being reflected. I decided I wanted to do something to have my story be told and other kids’ stories be told. Now I’m developing an app for my campaign, #1000BlackGirlBooks, to help the people who are telling these really important stories get their books purchased. I talk a lot to my mom because she is a very smart person. Our conversations grew into serious discussions: “What can I do?” and “What is the bigger scale of impact I can make?” I’m always the person who will think small. So my mom has always pushed me to think big—work hard and take really big strides rather than just taking the small route.

Read an extended interview with Dias here: “Marley Dias Always Gets It Done”

Storm Lever made her Broadway debut last March as one of the stars of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

The first time I actually got attached to the project was 2016 when we did a workshop of the show in New York. They were just testing out the material to see if any producers were interested. It was just the opportunity of a lifetime. I got to sit next to these established Broadway performers and take everything that I’d been studying and put it into practice.

One of our first performances was our preview night—the first night that the public can come see the show—and I invited my mother, my father, my boyfriend, his sister, and two of my best friends. During one of the first numbers, the three versions of Donna sing together for the first time; it’s this moment where Donna is owning her voice. For the majority of the show, I can’t see anybody in the audience because it’s so dark, but when I looked at the audience during this number, my family members were directly in my view line. And I will never forget that moment, because that made it real. I knew that it was because of these people that I was able to get here, and I just felt so lucky to be doing what I was doing in that moment.

Any time you’re facing something new, you’re going to be nervous—Can I do this? Be patient with yourself. You can, and you will, because you’re there and you wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t right. You’re meant to do this. Give yourself the time to grow, and give yourself the time to learn. You’ve known yourself longer than any of the people you’ve been working with have, and you know what you need in order to do something to the best of your ability. If you give yourself the time and the room to do it, you can do it.

Brian Allen created an icon. With the Philadelphia Flyers marketing team and Vice President of Marketing and Communications Joe Heller, he conceptualized a new mascot, Gritty.

Before I started drawing, I made a list of 50 different ideas and pitched that to the Flyers. From there, we narrowed it down. I did rough sketches. We explored bulls. Monsters. A bat at one point. Once they picked the direction, they gave feedback. Let’s try this, let’s try that. We didn’t want him to look too similar to any other NHL mascot. The Flyers wanted him to have the ability to express himself. So I did a lot of research with Jim Henson puppetry. We always described him the same way: “We want a gritty look to him.” They wanted him to look like somebody you wanted to high-five, but not hug. So it’s funny that Gritty ended up being his name, because it fits perfectly.

Read an extended interview with Allen here: “Making a Mascot”

Kame Spencer began a career where her life’s on the line. Officer Spencer started as a rookie with the Seattle Police Department last spring.

My first day was in April. I was freaking out. Everything that we trained for in the last nine months was real. Every decision we make impacts someone’s life. It was a surreal moment wearing the gear for the first time. I was with a senior officer. The first five minutes into our shift on my first day, we got an arrest. We were driving, and there’s a guy working on a car, but it looks like he is breaking into it. There was another guy helping him. We approach. We run his name, and it turns out he has a protection order against him by his ex-wife, and his ex-wife lived in the building right where the car was parked.

Every call is unexpected. Another day, I definitely had a moment of fear. It was a building search. The call involved a sexual assault with a firearm. I had to knock on the door. The porch was so little that only I could fit on there. All my partners were behind me. The porch light was on, but we couldn’t see into the house because it was dark. That was the biggest moment of fear I’ve ever had in my life. I knocked on the door. The minute I touched the door, it flung open into a dark room, and I had to go in, because you can’t just stand in a dark doorway. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning. I was shaking. No one gets used to that feeling. The suspect started walking down the stairs. My training officer quickly stepped in front of me and grabbed him. The suspect wasn’t armed. He was totally oblivious.

When I got out in the field, I realized it’s more than just helping people. It’s being there at people’s worst times and being a comfort for them. Three days post-academy, there was a sexual assault case. It was a female. I interviewed her, the first time I had ever done this. This is real life. I thanked her for being very brave. About two months later, I saw her again. She said, “I just want to say thank you. You don’t know how much it meant to me for you to be there and listen.” It was nice that I actually made a difference.

Max Downham ran his first marathon at 81 in 2017. He couldn’t complete the Chicago Marathon again last year due to hip pain, but he’ll be back.

Before the race, someone said to me, and I didn’t understand this, but they said, “Max, be sure to write the word Max on your shirt.” As you get toward the end, the marathon becomes more challenging physically and mentally. When people cheer you on, saying, “Go, Max, go,” it makes a huge difference. You just have to say, You know, I’m going to do this. My attitude in life, in work, in whatever I do, is that it’s OK to try something. Failing is fine. It’s not a problem. If you do try it and you fail, that’s the way you learn. That’s the fun part of life—learning something new. I don’t feel like I’m 82 years old. Running has really helped me in every other way in life. It reinforced the positive thinking. I’m going to sign up for the 2019 marathon.

Francesca Di Cristofano, 18, co-founded a newspaper. After the New York community paper she worked for folded, she and other students started their own, the Pelham Examiner.

After the newspaper I had been working for shut down, my adviser, Rich Zahradnik, told me that other students working for the paper had decided they wanted to start their own. I thought, A student-run paper? There’s no way that’s going to last. Whenever you start something new, there’s always risk. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid the town wouldn’t take elementary school, middle school, and high school reporters seriously. I was afraid this paper would fall apart, too. But I love journalism, and I hated seeing the newspaper I worked for go out of business, and that’s why I was willing to risk failure in starting a new one. And now the Pelham Examiner is up and running. Yes, people have questioned the validity of a newspaper run by students. Yes, we’ve had hard times—some students have blown important deadlines, strong senior reporters have had to stop writing until the stress of college applications ends, and we’ve had to make difficult decisions about what to publish and what not to publish. But for every setback, we’ve had more successes. We’ve been recognized as a real newspaper. Organizations have begun reaching out to us for coverage. Students across all grade levels have become interested in journalism. We’re real, and that makes any risk worth it.

Camille Frede received a double lung and heart transplant last March. She’s training to race her bike in the 2019 World Transplant Games.

Before, I’d have to push myself up a flight of stairs and take a break at the top. Now I can just go. It’s just incredible joy. It’s still a feat for me mentally to look at a hill and think, I can do that. It is fun looking for boundaries. I’m so out of shape that I need to learn to run. I’m up to two minutes of running. With mountain biking, some hills are really challenging. I ride with a bunch of friends and can’t keep up with their pace, so I just do my own pace and see where it takes me.

I’ve never been defined by my disease, pulmonary hypertension. Growing up, I participated in cheerleading, tennis, volleyball, choir, whatever I wanted. I’m looking forward to skiing or trying snowboarding and not being so short of breath I can’t even put on the boots. I want to go to Europe. I haven’t learned how to swim. I don’t have words for my gratitude. I was really sick. I was on the brink. It was literally a gift of life.

Irina Shabayeva embraces creating on the fly. The season six winner of Project Runway is competing on the final season of Lifetime’s Project Runway All Stars.

Some of the greatest designs have either been accidents or created in a short amount of time. When you’re in a crunch, you don’t have time to sit and overanalyze whether it’s going to work, and you can’t be overly practical or rational. For Project Runway, it really is go, go, go. You have to be a quick thinker. When you start doubting or going back and forth, that’s trouble. There’s something to be said about whimsy and blindly creating something.

Kenneth Carter

Kenneth Carter rebuilt his life—and community. After his Houston home was ruined by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he assisted neighbors first before letting the nonprofit SBP help fix his house. He returned to his home in August.

When I first walked up to my house after the storm, the waterline was at the top of the door. It smelled like death. To see everything just … gone, I had a lump in my throat. But after that, it was time to pick up each neighbor. I thought, Let’s get this thing started over. We’re not quitting. I knew my house would get taken care of, and I wanted to help other people first. To see the look on a person’s face when you walk into their house—the relief, the joy over the fact someone cared enough to help—it made me feel good. I lived in a trailer for 10 months as we gutted the walls, got rid of the mold, and then redid the insulation, plumbing, electrical, AC, drywall, and floors in my house and others. They were long hours. But the worst times in our lives are also sometimes the best. I was truly touched by the kindness and generosity of the volunteers at my house—more than 60 over two months. In the world today, we hear all about the bad. I saw goodness, day after day, for months. My house was finished in August. I had 100 people over for the welcome home party. I barbecued ribs and brisket. They said it was pretty good. I don’t want to brag on that barbecue. But I think Texas has the best barbecue in the world.

Anggie Fernandez became an American citizen in April. She emigrated from Peru in 2014.

When I came to the U.S., I was completely aware that I had to start from zero. I was an attorney in Peru, but here I was not licensed. So I had to accept a completely new scenario. I had to get used to another type of job environment, starting pretty much as an assistant. It could be hard. The most important thing I had to understand is that if you are going to achieve new goals, you have to start again. In the beginning, I didn’t want to do law anymore. But one thing led to another and I’m back in the legal field. One of my goals for this year is to go to law school in North Carolina. I’m starting again, but I know now it’s not impossible. This country has become my home. It’s a nation that has known how to overcome adversity of any kind and has given a hand to the needy with solidarity and compassion. I’m proud to be an American because of the country’s great history of idealism, struggle, courage, and cultural diversity. Living in the U.S. has given me opportunities that I never thought I would have. As part of my gratitude to this country, I am committed to actions that will have a positive impact on my community. I’ve assumed a civic responsibility that is consistent with the ideals of this nation. I want my daughter to see me as a positive role model so that she, as an American citizen, will be able to continue contributing to her country.

tiera fletcher

Tiera Fletcher is building a rocket to take humans to Mars. A rocket structural engineer, she is working on NASA’s Space Launch System in New Orleans.

Our first mission is set for early 2020. It’s meant to take us around the moon and test the rocket capabilities before we even put humans on. Then, by the 2030s, our goal is to get to Mars with humans. It’s super exciting, and it can become overwhelming, of course, when you have deadlines and so many things that people have never done before. We’re learning each and every day, but it’s thrilling to be able to look at and touch the rocket—that’s my favorite part of my daily tasks. One thing about engineering is that it’s team-based. Everyone has a role, so when something falls back, it affects the next part of that. The main thing is just to work with the team to make it happen. That might mean taking on responsibilities that aren’t usually mine because someone needs help or there’s a lag in a certain area.

I didn’t always believe in myself. I didn’t think that I could get into MIT or get a job at Boeing, but those were hurdles I had created for myself that weren’t necessarily there. I had the skill set; I just didn’t believe in my abilities. My parents, my family, my friends, and my husband [who also works on the rocket] helped mold me into a more confident person.

When beginning, focus, focus, focus, focus. Stay focused to the point that naysayers can’t affect your path. Always make a short-term goal that contributes to your long-term goal. Writing things down is my way of visualizing things—just a simple list or a timeline of where I want to be. Even in college, I would write out my entire schedule for the week, starting on Sunday, hour by hour, so I could lay out my goals and how I was going to complete them.


Photography by Josh Huskin (Simone Biles), Andrea Cipriani Mecchi (Marley Dias), Michael Black/Black Sun (Brian Allen); Michael A. Schwarz (Tiera Fletcher); photography courtesy of Team USA (Jen Lee) and Camille Frede; illustrations by Michael Hoeweler

Originally Published January 2019