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How ‘The Little Mermaid’ Inspired One Woman with Spina Bifida to Beat Incredible Odds

If someone asks you who your favorite Disney character is, it probably doesn’t take you long to answer. In fact, you probably have some sort of rationale behind why you love who you love.

My favorite is Cruella de Vil because I think most mean girls are misunderstood (plus, I just like to root for the villain).

Jan Cornett as a child
Image source: Jan Cornett

But the story behind Jan Cornett’s favorite Disney character is a lot more meaningful. Cornett was born in 1986 with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord is exposed. The damage to her spine caused paralysis below the knees, along with associated bowel and bladder conditions that are common to people with lower spinal cord injuries.

At 31, Cornett hasn’t let spina bifida or its associated conditions slow her down one little bit, and she can trace her drive and determination back to one special Disney character.

Jan Cornett as a child
Image source: Jan Cornett

When Cornett was 3 years old, she saw The Little Mermaid. “Ariel was my first princess,” Cornett tells Babble. “It was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater.”

It’s easy to see why Ariel is her favorite Disney character. What did Ariel want more than anything in the world? Legs, of course. While Cornett had legs, she wasn’t able to use them to walk. But as a toddler, she was already showing determination to make it happen.

Cornett’s parents put her in physical therapy as a baby. Therapists put her in a standing frame to help strengthen her legs. She walked in a walker at age 2, and by age 3, she was learning to navigate crutches.

“Ariel wanted to be part of another world, and so did I,” Cornett explains. “All my family and friends were able-bodied people and I wanted to be like them. Ariel wanted to walk on two legs and so did I.”

And while Cornett couldn’t walk, she could swim. While she played in the pool, she often pretended to be Ariel, as she always felt a special kinship with The Little Mermaid. Swimming helped Cornett build her strength, give her hope, and fuel her determination.

By the time Cornett reached kindergarten, she was walking with braces … but she didn’t stop there. She began riding horseback at age 6 and was the first person with any type of disability to be part of the University of Tennessee equestrian team.

Jan Cornett
Image source: Jan Cornett

Ever-determined to make her dreams come true, Cornett has walked in seven 5K races and his currently training for her eighth — a 5K associated with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Dublin. She trains up to four times a week and says her dogs help keep her motivated.

Jan Cornett 5K
Image source: Jan Cornett

Her current 5K time is around one hour. She has set the goal of shaving 15 minutes from her time; her efforts are even featured in the documentary, How to Make an Athlete.

Something tells me she’s going to succeed, but Cornett has her sights set beyond running goals. She’s getting ready to launch her own blog, Gimpy Nerd. She hopes to reach families of kids with disabilities and share success stories to spread hope.

Jan Cornett
Image source: Jan Cornett

“There’s not a lot of info on success stories featuring people with disabilities,” explains Cornett. “There were times when I watched people doing things I couldn’t do and it brought me down. I try to focus on what I can do, and I want to find a way to get that message to others.”

Jan Cornett on the beach
Image source: Jan Cornett

Cornett is kicking ass at life — up where they run, wandering free, as an inspired part of this beautiful world.

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