Senior column: Perfect imperfection

“My tie-dye leg isn’t something that defines me by any means, but it has brought me to a sport that plays an integral part of my identity.” (Emily Lundell)

Tie-dye is a trend that’s always been around. On 70s day in school, everyone dresses up in shirts with splotches of mixed colors, and in chemistry we choose our favorite colors and design tie-dye t-shirts. Tie-dye has always been in fashion, but for me, it’s unique because I have a “tie-dye” leg.

I was born with a port-wine stain, a birthmark that makes the skin on my left leg appear red because of overexcited blood vessels that don’t “shut off ” and are larger than normal. It can appear anywhere on the body, mine just happens to cover my entire leg. Since about only three out of every 1,000 people have it, many people are unaware of the condition and believe it’s just a bad sunburn. My unique birthmark, put simply, looks like someone spilled wine all over my leg and only cleaned up certain spots.

My birthmark created the disadvantage of looking odd in pictures, but it also provided special advantages. Growing up, it made learning basic directions a lot easier. Since the port wine stain is on my left leg, all I had to do was look down, and I’d instantly know my left from my right. While most kids were struggling to remember directions, I had a built in navigation system.

In preschool, a girl in my class told me she didn’t want to play with me because my legs were different colors. I remember being a little shocked at first, and though I didn’t let it affect me for long, it’s still something that’s stuck with me for years.

As a child, I was in and out of doctor’s offices when there was still limited research on port-wine stains. Some birthmarks go deeper than the skin and cause internal problems in veins that can have future implications, so from an early age, I was monitored and became used to x-rays and MRI scans. I’ve even visited doctors in New York and California to make sure we could rule out every medical problem that was a possibility for me.

As I grew older, doctors told me to consider swimming because the motion of kicking in the water helps shrink the blood vessels and reduce the risk of varicose veins. I had to quit dance, a sport I loved, to try swimming even though it was not my favorite activity. Unexpectedly, this became one of the best decisions anyone has ever made for me.

I found a great group of friends on my club team and decided to sign up for my high school swim team freshman year. I continued to enjoy the camaraderie found in high school swimming so much that the early practices at 6 a.m. didn’t faze me. I loved cheering on my peers, and throughout the wins and losses I’m grateful I always had my team supporting me. Swimming became way more than a medical solution. It continued to boost my confidence through my teenage years as I ironically pursued a sport that put my entire “tie-dye” leg on display, with no options for hiding my uniqueness. Swimming also facilitated my competitive side, pushing me to not only compete against other people, but also to improve on my own best times.

I was lucky enough to serve as a captain my senior year, and though I’m sad I never got to finish my senior season of water polo, I’m happy I found a sport and team that have meant the world to me. Through swim, I learned the meaning of responsibility and teamwork. My teammates saw me at my best and at my worst and always pushed me to be true to myself. My tie-dye leg isn’t something that defines me by any means, but it has brought me to a sport that plays an integral part of my identity.

Although it’s just a physical appearance, my birthmark has helped shape who I have become and gave me a place in high school. From an early age, I learned that appearances aren’t everything and to focus on myself rather than the opinions of others. What I used to think was an embarrassment has led me to some of my greatest blessings. I’ve become so accustomed to my birthmark that I forget my legs are even different colors. Many people don’t notice the difference anymore, and I believe that’s because I’ve stopped treating it as something that makes me different. If tie-dye is making a comeback, I guess I’m ahead of the trend.