By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday Sept. 29, 2009, D1
A framed photograph sits on the kitchen counter of Erin Hardtke's Herndon home. It's a 10x14 image of Erin, a senior at Oakton High, playing volleyball. In the picture, her left arm is perfectly placed above the net, poised to deliver a vicious kill shot as two defenders, caught in midair, brace for impact.
Gretchen often comes home to find the picture turned face down. Erin, 17, "hates" the photo, says her mom. "She has a really tough time seeing herself in print or in pictures."
Erin's right arm is also plainly visible in the image. The limb ends a few inches below her elbow because of a birth defect.
Despite her disability, Erin has developed into a five-sport anomaly, excelling in swimming, diving, basketball, volleyball and soccer. She's used each sport as her proving ground, trading self-doubt and questions of self-image for confidence-boosting moments of athletic accomplishment. Still, despite her varsity letters, Hardtke admits her condition has had a powerful impact on her high school experience. She says she has struggled to keep a positive self-image, saying she's found it difficult at times to "love myself."
"It's something I had no control over," said Erin, who lost her right arm to a condition called amniotic band syndrome, in which fetal parts, usually limbs or digits, become entrapped in fibrous amniotic bands while in utero.
Described by her parents as a "chatter box" when she was younger, Erin has become more withdrawn during her high school experience, choosing to shield her emotions as she learns to balance being disabled with being a teenager.
"I still have those moments when it's just a lot to take in, when it's really frustrating, when I want to give up, when it's really annoying, when I'm at my end," she said.
"We've always said, 'Thank God that she's naturally athletic, naturally beautiful and smart because those are positives,' " Gretchen said as she peered across the kitchen table at her husband, Bill. "Athletics evens the playing field for her. It makes her feel like an equal."Left-Handed 'Thunderbolt'
In her fourth year playing organized volleyball, Hardtke has become one of the Virginia AAA Northern Region's most feared outside hitters.
"That left hand is a thunderbolt," Oakton volleyball coach Steve Drumm said.
Left-handed hitters are particularly desirable in volleyball, according to George Mason University women's volleyball coach Pat Kendric, who became so enamored with Erin's hard hitting during a GMU volleyball camp this summer that she hooked her up with an invite-only tryout with the Women's U.S. Paralympic volleyball team.
Reluctantly, Hardtke will travel to Oklahoma for a Nov. 20 tryout.
"When we went to the Web site, she didn't like it at all because the whole focus is on being different," said Gretchen. "But, who knows, this could be the one opportunity where, for her, being different might be an advantage."
Hardtke also is an accomplished swimmer and diver at Pinecrest Swim and Tennis Club, where she is a specialist in the breaststroke and butterfly.
"I do the butterfly just like everybody else does it," Erin said.
Last spring, she was a starting defender for Oakton's state semifinal soccer team, and she is a year-round soccer player with the travel team Chantilly Electrics.
She also played basketball for Oakton as a freshman and owns a defensive hip-check that earned her both a reputation and playing time.
"She's no shrinking violet. She doesn't apologize for her situation or ask for any particular quarter for it," said Oakton basketball coach Fred Priester, who described Hardtke's jump shot and the inexplicable spin she puts on the ball. "She hasn't let what would be a pretty daunting situation for most kids hold her back."
A one-handed jump shot is just one example of what Hardtke calls "modifications," as she has to "think a lot more than other players do," she said.
"I guess I just try and find an easier way of what [other players] are doing and apply it to me," said the 5-foot-10 Hardtke, who has a 21-inch vertical leap -- one of the highest on the volleyball team. "Volleyball is the hardest thing for me because it's really a lot of technique, it's precision passing, it has to be a precision set."
During a 3-0 season-opening victory over South Lakes this month, Erin scored on nine straight serves; more than half were aces.
"There's nothing wrong with an opposing team trying to pick on her defensively, because she's never been a liability," said Drumm. "Sometimes parents from the other team come up to me and say, 'It's so great what you're doing for her' and then I'll feel a little uncomfortable. I'm not doing Erin any favors -- if she wasn't talented enough, she wouldn't be on this team."
The hard work, the extra hours, and the obstructions that foul Hardtke's day-to-day activities have equally frustrated her and shaped her resilience.
"I'm usually a really private person," Erin said. "My mom and dad are my support system, but I don't even feel comfortable telling them when I have problems because I have to admit to them that I'm not like everyone else and I'm different, and it's really hard for me, even right now. I don't like drawing attention to myself at all."Adaptable and Stubborn
By the time she was 5, Erin was learning to adapt to her disability. Twice a month, her parents would make the three-hour drive to Shriner's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, where she would endure grueling repetitions of simple tasks such as tying her shoes and cutting with a fork and knife, while learning how to use her prosthetic arm.
"The first time I saw her tie her shoes, it boggled my mind," said Bill. "And I mean, a perfect bow, too."
By the time she was a sixth-grader, Erin had developed a stubbornness that her parents called unquestionable. Determined to fit in with her classmates, Erin would take off her prosthetic arm and hide it in her backpack at school. The prosthetic was "just one more thing that made me feel different," she said.
Eventually, she stopped wearing it completely.
"I think she just thought, this is it, this is the way it's going to be and I'm going to have deal with it," said Bill. "I doubt right now that she'll ever get to a point where she'll want to wear [the prosthetic] again."
When Erin was in fifth grade, a referee made her remove her prosthetic before walking onto the field for a youth soccer game. Her teammates, family, opposing team and spectators watched. "It was very public," Bill said.
"After that, she didn't wear it playing soccer anymore," Gretchen said.
Since entering high school, Erin's self-awareness has grown. The stares and sideways glances often magnify her discomfort. In addition to her family -- she's one of four children -- she finds support from a small circle of friends, many of whom are teammates from sports.
"I don't really play sports to prove anything or prove anyone wrong, I just always played sports," Erin said. "My parents had us all in sports ever since we were kids."
Sitting on a stool and leaning her left elbow on a black granite countertop, Erin waves the bangs off her forehead. She takes a moment to tuck her right arm close to her body; it's an optical illusion that makes it appear as if her arm is positioned behind her back.
"She's done that ever since she was a little girl," Bill said. "It's a bit of a defense mechanism she uses sometimes so that it gives her a chance with people before they notice [her arm]. I'm not sure she's even conscious that she does it."
The desire to be normal, to be like the rest of the kids in her class -- it never goes away.
"I would love to see, like just have a day where I look like everyone else and just see what would happen," Erin said. "I just feel like I'd love my life so much more. It would just be easier."