Jessica Cox: A Real-Life Superwoman
At its core, this is a human story of grit, resilience and extraordinary achievement.
People who soar to great heights while inspiring others to do the same are an uncommon breed. They come from all backgrounds and arrive in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most develop their abilities over their lifetimes, little-by-little, as their experiences shape them. More uncommon still are the few who are simply born to be leaders. Let’s meet an extraordinarily rare born leader.
Baby Jessica first graced our earth in February 1983 when born to Inez and William Cox in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a mountainous Sonoran Desert suburb of Tucson. Her parents’ hearts were broken, their sense of normalcy shattered when they first saw their baby’s body. Due to a rare birth defect, Jessica was born without upper limbs. One of life’s great moments of pride and joy shifted sharply to grief and worry.
The Grieving Process
Everyone’s grieving process is unique and personal. While the Cox’s worked through their initial stages, including denial, anger and guilt, they mostly worried for their beautiful little girl’s future.
Inez had an especially difficult time, suffering bouts of anxiety and regret. “As a young registered nurse in the Philippines,” Jessica recalls, “mom had seen the way children with disabilities were treated. It nearly ensured the family a life of poverty and the child was often abandoned.”
Her father, Bill, taught a music program at the local army base, Fort Huachuca. “He never saw it as a period to grieve,” she says, “that just wasn’t his personality.” Her older brother was just happy to have a baby sister. They were all helped along by the bright smile on Jessica’s face and the spunk in her spirit.
The process moved along rapidly and soon enough, acceptance became the family norm. The tears had all been shed and it was time to begin building good, productive and satisfying lives.
Acceptance and Normalcy
“I was blessed with parents who gave me the extra attention I needed,” Jessica says. Her mother became her biggest booster, often saying, “There are no limits to what you can do and who you can be.”
There would be no ‘special needs’ education for this child. She was enrolled in the public school and stayed competitive with her classmates by adapting until she found a way. She was participating in gymnastics by age three, swimming by five, tap dancing by six, and taekwondo at the age of ten.
But none of it was easy at the start. She suffered bouts of frustration and anger at being so different. “I especially didn’t like being stared at,” she says.
Trying to bow out of a tap dance performance, she told her mom, “I get enough attention as it is – I don’t want to be on stage.” Her mother encouraged her to change her mind, saying, “Honey, you can do this. Only you determine what’s possible in your life.”
Jessica gathered up her courage and went out on the stage, staring straight down at her feet. “The bright lights were too much,” she says, “but then the applause came, and my eyes lifted. Afterward, I asked my mom, ‘when can I do that again’.”
At times, especially when her classmates or teachers were overprotective of her, she would feel disappointed and brood. After one of these incidents, she remembers sitting on the playground swing dreaming of soaring through the sky just like Supergirl.
At age 14, Cox made a life-changing emotional decision to come out of hiding and begin soaring for good. The prosthetic arms she’d been using most of her youth were kicked to the back of the closet.
“I never really connected with them,” she says. “I looked ‘normal’ when I wore clothing but there’s nothing like the tactile experience of flesh and bone.”
Importantly, she was growing up and didn’t feel the need to fit in anymore. “This is me,” she said, “this is what I have to work with. I needed to prove to myself that I could do whatever I wanted, that I could do what my mom said I could.”
She learned to use her chin and shoulders as upper limb proxies and with proper stretching and leverage, and a lot of practice, her feet and toes started doing much of what a hand and fingers could do.
At first, she had to convince her instructor to make the necessary adaptations and then trust that she’d take care of the rest.
“He said all I needed to bring with me was a good attitude,” she says with a smile. “That’s never been a problem for me.” A whole new curriculum was created to match her abilities and over a four-year period, by that same age of 14, she her first black belt in Taekwondo.
“The word impossible really means ‘I’m possible’,” Cox often says to enthusiastic audiences. She has been delivering this message of positivity as a motivational speaker for longer than we’d expected, even before she earned her Guinness World Record.
It was an unforgettable experience that would set the stage for the next amazing chapter of her story.
In 2005, Cox graduated from the University of Arizona with degrees in psychology and communications. While on campus, she reengaged with her martial arts training. Once again, an entire new curriculum was developed, this time to both accommodate her unique abilities and to set the path for future students with similar needs. While at school, she earned her second black belt, this time in the American Taekwondo Association.
In the same year of her graduation, she was busy convincing another instructor to take her on, this time at flight school. Of course, she adapted and persisted and learned to fly a specific type of ‘light sport aircraft’ by controlling the ‘yoke’ with one foot and the ‘throttle’ with the other. In 2008, she was licensed and became the first armless pilot in history.
“When I first took over the airplane without the instructor,” she says, “it was the most incredible moment – the greatest feeling of freedom, empowerment and independence in my life. I looked down and saw that playground where I sat imagining all those years ago. I had accomplished my childhood dream.”
This incredible feat of bravery and ingenuity has won her numerous awards including her Guinness World Record. Her story has been told across the globe on most of the major networks with appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Network, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and others.
A New Wind Beneath Her Wings
It was on a Taekwondo ‘dojahng’ in 2010 where Cox would meet her future husband and business manager, Patrick Chamberlain. He was an instructor and they experienced a slow, steady and rather unique courting process. From kicking each other, they moved on to socializing, dating, and about two years later, to marriage. Typically, it works the other way around – the ‘kicking each other’ usually comes after the marriage.
It turns out they are a match made in the heavens. In fact, it is reasonable, if not a bit kitschy, to call Patrick ‘a new wind beneath her wings.’
Cox considers her steady growth into the confident person she is today her crowning achievement. Because she’s made the absolute best of what she’s been given, to say the least, she has realized her dream of flying, and now, no longer flying solo.
“Life is 10% what happens and 90% how we respond,” she says. “To get the most out of our lives, we must be fearless. I identified my greatest fears and walked directly at them. Because of that, I am a pilot in command of my own life.”
By overcoming staggering odds to achieve all that she has, and by her inspiring words, you’d think she might one day write a book, or be featured in a documentary, or maybe she’d be ramping up her motivational speaking career and humanitarian efforts and taking them worldwide?
Done – Done – Doing.
A Limitless Advocate
In her 2015 book, Disarm Your Limits, Cox tells her inspirational story while also mixing in motivational tenets to encourage readers to drop the fears and excuses and live their lives to the fullest. This isn’t a ‘do as I say’ book. The message is ‘here’s what I’ve done, and you can do it too if you follow my lead.’
The documentary, Right Footed, directed by Emmy Award winning filmmaker, Nick Spark, chronicles Cox’ life, , humanitarian trips to and the , as well as her efforts to pass the in the US .
CRPD is an international disability treaty which became effective in the United Nations in May 2008. It has successfully shifted the world’s view of the disabled from ‘objects’ to be pitied and cared for, to ‘human beings’ with the same basic rights and aspirations as any other group. Every person around the world affected by disability owes a debt of gratitude to Jessica Cox and other heroes like her.
Thinking Outside the SHOE
Cox is now taking her messages of limitless achievement and disability advocacy around the world. Usually traveling with her husband, she made about sixty appearances in the past year and the forward calendar appears even busier.
When onstage, she delivers her can-do spirit of optimism in a ‘tell & show’ manner by sharing stories and demonstrating tools and methods she uses for living her optimal life. It is an amazing display of a human adaptability and resilience, illustrating both her creativity and just how long and hard she’s practiced in achieving this level of mastery.
For instance, how does she get dressed, tie her shoelaces, open a can of soda or pay for groceries at a store? (e.g. at the store, she takes her credit card out of her shoe with her right foot and swipes it through the machine in front of an oftentimes stunned checkout person)
Once she’s in her un-adapted car, how does she put on the seatbelt and then drive away? In the cockpit of her plane, how she does she put on the headset, the seatbelt, and control the levers? How does she put on flippers when she goes scuba diving? She demonstrates it all to ‘wowed’ and appreciate audiences.
Rather than possessing two sets of limbs that perform separate functions, she has essentially adapted her one set of limbs to be multi-functional. To describe this incredible accomplishment, she simply says, “I’ve given myself time to reinvent how things are usually done.”
“Excuses are easy,” she says. “Persistence is not.” She implores her audiences to never quit, recommending instead a non-stop process of creativity. “Heighten your awareness of all the dormant resources you have at their disposal,” she says, “and insist on finding a way. You do it by reevaluating, repurposing and reinventing everything in your life, and kicking out the excuses for good.”
Her presentations are filled with plenty of humor as well. She tells the story of showing up the first time to take her driver’s license test. “He was nervous,” she wryly says of the examiner. “When I saw the sweat beading on his forehead, I said, ‘you might want to buckle up’.”
After allowing the audience time for a hearty laugh, she offers the punchline, “Twenty minutes later I had my driver’s license in my right foot.” Another pause for enthusiastic applause, then the finish, “Now, I rent cars often just to see the reactions.”
Inspired by Heroes
While Cox has become a hero to many, particularly those in the disabled community, she has her own list of heroes. They include many of the valiant disabled people across the world who she’s been privileged to meet, mentor and inspire.
She is a Goodwill Ambassador for Humanity and Inclusion, a mentor at International Child Amputee Network (I-CAN), hosts a YouTube show, ‘Life with Feet,’ and has started Rightfooted Foundation International. Her primary mission is to support children with disabilities living to their fullest potential.
Cox’ hero list also includes pioneering female aviators Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. With their own stories of remarkable courage, these two innovators blazed a path for all future female pilots, just as Cox is doing now for the disabled.
She has two ‘mothers’ on her list as well. One is Mother Teresa. So, we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised with her ever-increasing attention to humanitarian interests.
At the very top of her hero list, of course, is her real mother and father. The same mom who told her as a child, “There are no limits to what you can do and who you can be” and “Honey, you can do this. Only you determine what’s possible in your life.” And the same dad who was never uneasy regarding his daughter’s condition, always believing she would have a good life.
While she rarely discusses it, her mom, Inez, passed away in 2016 after a long battle with cancer. Her dad is still living close by in Tucson.
Cox considers her mom’s passing the greatest tragedy of her life, but it has also shifted her thinking. “Once I finished mourning,” she says, “I’ve only thought of how wonderful she was, and how lucky and blessed I’ve been. She’s still alive and with me today.
Her words perfectly describe the very same pattern of positivity and limitless thinking that has defined her entire life. Whatever the event may be, even the tragic, she works to change the meaning to one that empowers her. In one summary statement, that’s her winning formula.
With a young lifetime of courage, hard work and persistence in the books, Jessica Cox has without a doubt arrived. This fearless aviator’s future appears to be as expansive as a cloudless blue horizon.When she’s at leisure, which isn’t often, she seeks out natural settings like Tucson’s Catalina Foothills and Mountains.
Whether it be at sunrise or sunset, or anytime in between, she craves being out in nature either biking, hiking or simply walking with her loved ones and enjoying the fresh air. It is a just reward for her hard work, diligence and extraordinary achievements.
When asked if she has any words of wisdom to pass along to our readers, she restated what’s worked for her: “Kick out your fears and excuses – all the false limits you place on yourself. Get rid of them for good. Be limitless, make the absolute best of all you’ve been given and live your lives to the fullest. Finally, express your gratitude daily. We have so much to be grateful for.”
In other words, do what this real-life Superwoman does. ‘Think outside the Shoe.’