Wheelchair user finds herself through basketball, music

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Aimee Vargas, a National Wheelchair Basketball Association basketball player found herself through basketball and music at the age of 14 years old. 

Vargas found her passion for basketball while trying to discover her purpose in life. She said she was inspired to play basketball while watching a documentary by Mike Schilappi, a motivational and inspirational speaker confined to a wheelchair.  

“I was trying to discover what my identity was and who I wanted to be.” Vargas said. “If I even wanted to have a future, even wondering if I should be alive.”

Vargas said she was trying to find a sense of belonging and purpose.

When she was born, Vargas was diagnosed with spina bifida which is a birth defect in which a developing baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly. Ever since she was born, Vargas recalls being in a wheelchair. 

“My whole life I knew I was different, but I never compared myself and if I did I was probably too young to remember,” Vargas said. “I always knew this is what I have and I’ve always adapted to my disability.” 

At the age of 14 years old, Vargas was introduced to Schilappi through her church leaders. When she met Schilappi, she was invited to play basketball at the NWBA.

“I was part of the junior team all the way until I was 17 years old, and that was from 2009 until 2012,” Vargas said. 

During the time Vargas was on the team, it was the top-ranked team in the state of Utah. Vargas and her team got the opportunity to travel and also be sponsored by the Utah Jazz

“If it hadn’t been for basketball, I wouldn’t probably be here,” Vargas said. “I probably would have taken my life.”

While in high school, Vargas said she suffered from bullying and self-esteem issues. She was shy and felt like she did not have a purpose in her life. Being part of the team helped her learn how to get through those feelings and brought joy to her life.

“Being in the wheelchair basketball team made me learn that there is a healthy way to get rid of negative emotions,” Vargas said. 

Despite her disability and trials, Vargas said she learned to be more confident in herself. She learned that she is who she is for a reason.

“I am the only one who can live with myself at the end of the day, so just be happy and have fun with the people around you,” Vargas said.

Vargas said she expects to still go through hard things but she is determined not to fail.

Micala Pearson, a close friend of Vargas, said she considers Vargas a best friend but also a sister. Pearson said when they first met they had so much in common.

“She is someone I look up to because of her friendliness,” Pearson said. “She has so much brightness and happiness and she doesn’t let any of her problems ruin her.” 

Pearson said Vargas is not only admired because of her friendliness but also for her strength to overcome difficult times in her life. 

“The first word that comes to mind, especially for her disability and challenges in life is a happy attitude,” Pearson said. “If I ever need someone to talk to or spend time with, I know I can count on her.” 

Aimee Vargas’s mother, Elizabeth Vargas, said that coping with the disability and her emotional state was never easy. Elizabeth said Aimee had to go through so many surgeries and, as a mom, it was hard to see her endure that.

“Even though she was going through all these difficulties she was always very strong and I admire her for that,” Elizabeth said. “I was the one broken inside but watching her strive to improve was something that motivated me every day and it still does until this day.”

After graduating high school, Aimee left the basketball team because she found out she had interstitial lung disease, which prevented her to play basketball. Aimee recalls falling into depression during that time, but her passion for music kept her alive. 

“Benton Paul was performing in Provo and I convinced my mom to take me, it was close to my birthday,” Aimee said. “‘I just want this for my birthday like nothing else,’ I told my mom.”

After meeting Benton Paul, Aimee went to many concerts that inspired her to become a talent agent and a local artist promoter. 

“I know a lot of people might not really care about celebrities, but for me, I’ve always loved to help celebrities,” Aimee said.

Elizabeth said this experience has helped Aimee find ways to help others and find joy in her life.

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