It’s not every day that 8-year-old Raegan Justesen meets someone with a limb difference.
That’s why she was surprised when she ran into Ms. Leah Kaplan last month at her elementary school in Spokane, Washington, and noticed the special education teacher was waving at her with what she calls her left “nubbin.”
“I’m happy to see her because I thought there was nobody else that had a nubbin at my school,” Raegan told “Good Morning America.”
“She saw that I had a little arm before I even got the chance to see her and she pulled out her little arm in the hallway and she literally was like, ‘(Gasp) Oh my gosh!’ and she’s like 'Look!’” Kaplan recalled of the moment the two met in the hallway.
Raegan’s grandmother, as well as her mother, Joni Justesen, both work at the same school and Kaplan said she learned through them that the feeling was mutual. “They told me she went home that night and just could not stop talking about it, how there's a teacher here with one arm,” Kaplan said. “I was like, well that makes me really happy and whenever I see her, I feel like a celebrity. She always makes a point of saying hi."
Kaplan shared a photo of her with Raegan on her Instagram and revealed that she also gifted Raegan with an adaptive bike, eager to pass on her love of sports to the second-grader.
“I just thought, ‘You know what, I want her to get into sports when she gets older and I want her to have a mentor because they said she has never been in a community with people with disabilities,” Kaplan said.
In addition to teaching, Kaplan competes as a paratriathlete and is aiming to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. She herself was inspired by a teacher who did triathlons on the weekends.
“As an adult, I was thinking, ‘Why not do one now? There's an Ironman that's local. I might as well just sign up for it even though I have no training, I have no bike,’” Kaplan recalled of her first triathlon experience. “I said, ‘I’m gonna do this. I want to do something like this.’ So I applied and I raced as a challenged athlete and I came in first place.”
For Kaplan, the paratriathlon world is a community she didn’t know she was looking for, full of excitement and empowerment, and as someone who grew up with a limb difference and an adoptee who came to the U.S. from China when she was 6, she recognizes how impactful representation can be.
“I know what it's like as a kid to just suffer in silence, to feel so alone, and look at so many beautiful people online and just not feeling good enough … You don't have to look the part. You can still achieve whatever you want,” Kaplan said.
Raegan finally got to take her new bike for a spin on Sunday and reported that she “really liked it” and that it was “really fun” to ride a customized bike with all three gears and brakes on the right-hand side.
This summer, Kaplan plans to help Raegan, who also loves to run and swim, get started in triathlons too. “I really like doing sports,” Raegan added. “It’s really fun. And like, when I go to practice in cross country, I'm just like, ‘Yes!’”