When Juan Giraldo moved from Colombia to Tampa as a young child, his life changed dramatically.
Until that point in his life, he had led a fairly normal life, he said. Around the age of 3, his parents started to notice he ran a little slower and was a little weaker than some of his friends when they played soccer, something he loved, though they didn’t think much of it at the time.
But on March 3, 2000, after the Giraldo family moved from a climate then filled with drug cartels and violence, they found out their lives wouldn’t be the same.
Three days before his sixth birthday, Giraldo, now a freshman majoring in civil engineering, was told by doctors at the Shriner’s Hospital that he had Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that meant his muscles would progressively weaken overtime. Eventually, he wouldn’t be able to walk, they said.
Giraldo said he remembers his parents being distraught and shocked.
He stopped playing soccer, and over the course of the next six years he would eventually have to use a wheelchair full-time after he began falling down too frequently.
Initially, he said, he remembers seeing himself as different from everyone else, being forced to use a wheelchair as a 12-year-old.
But soon, he said, he realized life didn’t have to be too different.
In 2007, he was introduced to a sport that would change his life: power soccer. After initially watching practices, Giraldo joined the Tampa Bay Crossfire, a wheelchair soccer league. The next year, he and his team went on to play in the US Power Soccer Association’s national tournament in Washington D.C., playing fourth in the country.
The same year, the Muscular Dystrophy Association called him upon and asked if he wanted to share his story on a Nickelodeon segment in which he would be given the opportunity to experience a zero gravity simulation – an experience of weightlessness typically reserved for outer space.
His friends say he doesn’t like to think of himself as any different from anyone else.
“He doesn’t want special treatment,” William Gonzalez, a sophomore majoring in industrial engineering who met Giraldo through his involvement with Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers. “He doesn’t let his disability get in the way of being normal.”
Alejandro Bolivar, freshman majoring in microbiology, who said he and Giraldo instantly bonded over international soccer legends like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, said Giraldo is “extremely deserving” of winning and said he has voted for him every day.
“(His condition) does impact him, but he doesn’t let it stop him from doing what he wants,” he said. “He’s so passionate – about soccer and being an engineer – and I love that about him.
But now Giraldo wants to share his story in order to gain an even greater sense of normalcy in his life – the ability to drive himself.
In March, when his dad was on Facebook, he saw the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association was sponsoring a competition to provide one winner who shares their story and receives the most votes on their website with a modified vehicle that can allow them to drive.
Coming from a low-income family, Giraldo said such a vehicle would probably not be a possibility for him to afford at least for another few years of saving, as it could cost in the $50,000-60,000 range.
Currently, Giraldo said he depends on his parents for rides to and from school.
“It takes a lot away from spending time on campus and meeting more people,” he said. “I think it’s hindered me in some ways. I can’t decide when to leave campus and come back.”
Being able to drive, he said, will allow him to continue to do the things he wants with his life and succeed as an engineer.
To his family, he said, the competition means a lot.
“They’re so excited,” he said. “Every day they tell me how many votes I have.”
His aunt has designed and printed flyers, which his dad now helps hand out around campus.
Currently, Giraldo is in the lead out of more than 1,300 entrants, with 59,651 votes at the time of print. The competition closes May 9.