BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – For the past 12 years, Fort Madison’s Alyse Schmidt has walked the halls of Denmark and Fort Madison schools, laughing in the quick pace of the hallways going from classroom to classroom.
She followed her sister Lexi to youth ballgames and neighborhood games of tag, like little sisters do. She wanted to be like her sister, and do the things she, and other kids in the neighborhood, did. And she did.
But Alyse did it missing her right arm from the elbow down. No right forearm. No right hand.
Meromelia is the medical description of being born without part of a limb. Alyse didn’t recall what the medical condition was labeled, but she doesn’t really care either.
The FMHS senior plays tennis on the Fort Madison Bloodhound girls tennis team. She didn’t pick up a racquet until she was a freshman and quickly became fond of the game.
“It’s turned out to be really fun. I didn’t know what to expect going into it, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I think I’ll take my racquet with me to college and play,” she said. “It’s a life-long sport.”
Schmidt plays at Nos. 5 and 6 singles depending on the team and format of the matches.
While most players toss the ball with their weak-hand then either spring into the serve with their legs and hips, or hit more of a badminton-type serve, Alyse has to add a twist to hers.
To serve, she lays the ball on the face of the racket and holds it parallel to the ground with her left hand, and then flips the ball into the air and strikes it on the way down all in one smooth motion.
Once the ball is in play, Schmidt can hit ground strokes with good pace and then has to flick at one-handed back hands, where most girls play a two-handed backhand.
“I still struggle with my backhand. It’s not the prettiest. Most high school girls don’t do a one-hand backhand, but I don’t have that choice,” Schmidt said.
Head Coach Jeremy Swink, who’s in his first-year with the team, said he had heard there was a one-armed girl on the team, but he didn’t really get how unique it was until he saw her play.
“She came to me early on and asked how she could be more competitive with her serve,” Swink said
“I told her, ‘Alyse, just don’t double fault and get those serves in. You’ll be ahead of the game and don’t give up points on the serve and I think she does that very well,” Swink said.
She said her game requires a little more practice getting timing on her backhand and working on her serve. As a freshman she was the No. 11 player on the team and moved into the top 10 as a sophomore. As a junior she played at No. 8 singles and as a senior she’s now playing at No. 6.
She said she regularly has opponents ask her what happened to her arm, but said she welcomes the conversations.
“I have a lot of people ask me what happened, but I’m used to that,” she said. “There’s no point in getting uptight about it. It’s so visible, there’s no way to get around it. People are going be curious and I’d rather they just ask.”
She said she doesn’t mind when young people ask her about not having her arm.
“I don’t mind. They’re just wondering about it and I feel like it’s a good way to expose them to some of the other differences that they will be encountering in life,” Schmidt said. “It’s a good way for me to help others a little bit,” she said.
Schmidt is also involved in weight training and has an attachment she can wear to help her maximize her workouts. But she said outside of training, she really does better without the prosthetics.
“I did get to try a myoelectric prosthetic, one of the fancy bionic ones, and it was really cool.”
She said the myoelectric is a regular socket prosthetic, but it has sensors in the socket that pick up on how she would move her arm and she can do things like shake hands.
“I have a bag of old arms at home,” she said with a chuckle. “I grow out of them and when I look back at the ones I’ve had and how far it’s come in just my lifetime, and that’s not very long, it’s crazy.”
Schmidt wants to go to college to major in microbiology at Iowa State University and wants to do DNA analysis at a crime lab.
She hasn’t made up her mind on whether she wants to do that work in the state or move elsewhere, but she said her parents Stan and Shanan Schmidt have always been a silent partner in her upbringing without the arm.
“They’ve been alongside me through everything and they’ve done a good job of letting me find my own way and giving me opportunities,” Alyse said.
“It was just congenital,” her father said.
“Obviously we were surprised, but we were fortunate that there was a couple in town who approached us right away. They had adopted a daughter that was missing almost the exact same part. He was a Shriner and we got hooked up with that right away.”
But he said with her older sister, Alyse just took off doing the things all the other kids were doing.
“Fortunately, with Alyse, we had Lexi and we didn’t know anything different and Alyse followed Lexi and did what she was going to do. We didn’t have to try to adapt, she just did it.”
Shanan said she feels sometimes other parents look at them as if they are too hard on Alyse.
“Probably a lot of people look at us as being too hard on her,” Shanan said. “We never really wanted to use it as an excuse and she never really has. She just has to adjust to it and figure it out. And she has,” Shannon said.
Alyse said her parents have given her the space, opportunities, and freedoms to handle the situation on her own and she values that lesson from them.
“It’s so visible that sometimes people give opinions, but in the end, it’s my arm, my choice, and they’ve done really well teaching me that and giving me that choice.”
Swink said he was aware of the condition, but didn’t know where she would fit in the lineup.
“Once I saw it, I thought it was pretty amazing to see it. All the other tennis players just see her as Alyse and they don’t think about it. They just think, ‘Oh that’s Alyse and she’s a good tennis player’,” Swink said. “They don’t think of all the hurdles she has to jump through to be that successful player.”
“From that perspective it’s even more amazing. She has a great outlook on the game and that’s what’s really helped her get better,” Swink said.
In addition to tennis, Schmidt played youth sports including T-ball and volleyball. She is also involved in National Honor Society, Student Government Association, and Show Choir at the high school.
She also helps coach at camp with NubAbility Athletics where she helps other youth with missing limbs participate in sports and activities.
Schmidt’s approach to life without the arm is the same as other people who have all their limbs.
“I was just born without it. They don’t really know why, there’s not a history of it in my family or anything,” she said.
“You’ll have your comments from kids. But if it wasn’t my arm, it would have been because I’m short,” she quipped.
She said she doesn’t even really remember thinking about the issue as a younger child until she got to middle school.
“When I started middle school volleyball, that’s when I first remember it being an issue for me, but it had nothing to do with the game,” she said. “I didn’t know how to put up my hair and I freaked out.”
Schmidt said that’s one of the few times she let not having the arm get to her.
“I don’t spend part of my day thinking about ‘how am I going to do this or do that. I just do what I do.”