OWATONNA — Since Gavin Zacharias was born, his parents have told him that he can.
“I think it builds his confidence. It gives him self-esteem and a sense of purpose and there’s so much that he can do,” said Rebekah Zacharias, Gavin’s mother.
Gavin was born with spina bifida in 2006, and has gone through 14 surgeries and faces challenges each day.
“He has spotty paralysis from the waist down, so playing typical sports doesn’t quite work for him,” Rebekah Zacharias said. “He uses braces and uses crutches and uses a wheelchair for long distances, too.”
Last year, Gavin started playing sled hockey in the Twin Cities through the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities to play hockey.
“He’s always loved sports, even when he was a little kid, and he always believed he could play sports. He didn’t understand anything different,” his mother said. “He loves sports and he loves to be challenged with sports. Sometimes the trick is finding the right fit and most of it is up in the Cities.”
Each Sunday, Gavin takes the ice while his father, Stephen Zacharias, pushes the sled.
“It’s just fun for him because he can meet other kids that are on the same type of playing level as him, and they’re very competitive and have fun together,” Rebekah Zacharias said.
She said the association offers beginner, intermediate, competitive and adult sled hockey opportunities.
Sled hockey is one of the most popular sports in the Paralympic Games, and the games begin on March 7 in Sochi, Russia.
“When he started sled hockey and we told him it was a sport in the Paralympics, he asked, ‘Do you think I could ever play in the Paralympics,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. If you try your best, why not?’”
Gavin hopes to take the ice someday at the Paralympic Games.
And although someday isn’t this year, people watching the games on television may see Gavin and his mother featured in the “Tough Love” Thank you, Mom by P&G commercial, which shows mothers raising children with disabilities.
In 2006, Gavin, one of three children, was born in Thailand with spina bifida — while his parents served as missionaries.
“We didn’t know about spina bifida until he was born, so it was quite a shock,” Rebekah Zacharias said. “He had his first two surgeries in Thailand, and when he was about 4 weeks old, we came back to the United States.”
After returning to the U.S., the Zacharias family relocated from Oklahoma to Owatonna to be closer to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.
“He’s done some advertising and promotions for Gillette. He did a promotion (in 2011) for them called ‘Why Gillette?’ and they have that on their website,” Rebekah Zacharias said.
She said Proctor and Gamble came across the clip online and contacted Gillette asking if it could be used in the commercial.
“It’s very cool that we will be on a commercial that will air on primetime TV during the Olympics and also the Paralympic Games,” Rebekah Zacharias said.
She said the commercial is about tough love and tough moms, and that’s how she’s always been.
When Gavin was 2 years old and just starting to walk, he walked himself to the backyard with his walker and started crying, Rebekah Zacharias said.
“I said, ‘If you can walk yourself out there, you can walk yourself back in,’” she said. “We’ve always believed he can do anything.”
But for Gavin, who is now 7 years old and attending Owatonna Christian School, there are still struggles.
“There are times when there are some emotions and it’s tough not being able to do everything that everyone else can do, but we’ve always told him, ‘It’s OK, just do it Gavin-style,’” Rebekah Zacharias said. “And he kind of adapts everything to how he can do it, and a lot of times he’s a leader in getting people to do things the way he can do it.”
Last year, Gavin and his father joined a tee ball team in the area.
“There are not a lot of people out there doing it, but it’s something we had a passion for him to try out and we wanted something close, and I pushed him around in a wheelchair,” Stephen Zacharias said. “He learned how to catch a ball in a wheelchair, how to swing a bat in a wheelchair and how to hold on and it was a lot of fun.
“It’s getting him to a situation and then having him work through it, and at the end, he sees he has a lot of fun doing it and nothing can stop him from not doing it if he puts himself through it. There might be some tears along the way, but he can do it Gavin-style.”
Rebekah and Stephen Zacharias continue to encourage Gavin to set goals and follow his dreams.
“I want him to be his best and do the best that he can do. He’s brilliant,” Rebekah Zacharias said. “There’s nothing he can’t do. If he sets his mind to it, he can do it.”
And Stephen Zacharias hopes people take that message from the commercial, too.
“There are kids out there with these disabilities, and you go into stores and you get looked at and people stare at you. But they’re a child and they have as much potential as any other kid there,” he said. “They may have a few more challenges that they have to go through but they can accomplish great things and they can go great places in sports. Nothing’s impossible for them. If they want to do it, they can do it.”
To view the commercial, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RR-r2n5DLw. Gavin and Rebekah Zacharias appear at the 24-second mark.
Reach reporter Ashley Stewart at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter.com @OPPashley