Church member Tim Thomas named MVP of Stanley Cup Playoffs
Tim Thomas (Photo via NESN.com) The Boston Bruins won the…
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome this year’s 21st Duck, Lera Doederlein,” the announcer says in a video on NHL.com during the Anaheim Ducks’ season opener. “Lera continues the great tradition of great perseverance, character, courage and inspiration to be the 2019-20 21st Duck.”
“Lera continues the great tradition of great perseverance, character, courage and inspiration.”
As the 16-year-old double amputee skates to center ice to meet the other 20 Anaheim Ducks, the announcer tells more of Doederlein’s story.
In response, the sold-out crowd at the Honda Center rises to give her a standing ovation.
Lera, a member of the North County Church of Christ in Escondido, Calif., told NHL.com that she “felt in the moment” that night.
“Like heavenly,” she said.
From a life of limited mobility in Russia to making the U.S. Developmental Sled Hockey team, Doederlein’s journey inspires others through her faith and determination.
Her parents, David and Fami Doederlein, met while students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., in 1988. After David Doederlein’s graduation that year, the couple married and began pursuing their careers and furthering their education with stops in Ohio and Tennessee.
By 2000, the couple and their three biological children, Isaac, Keenan and Tori, moved to Minneapolis when David Doederlein took a corporate management job. The family worshiped with the Woodbury Church of Christ, and other members’ adoption experiences inspired the Doederleins to look into adoption.
“It was really on Fami’s heart that we would bring somebody else into our family,” David Doederlein said. “It took me about 18 months to come around because I thought our family was fine the way it was. The more we talked about it, the more we prayed about it, we finally decided that, ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do for our family.’”
During this time of prayer and contemplation, the Doederleins realized that while many need help, they wanted to assist a child in desperate need.
This desire led them to connect with adoption agencies in Eastern Europe.
“We actually received an old VHS video of a bunch of kids in a special needs orphanage in Russia,” David Doederlein said. “The person who sent us this video said, ‘There’s a child that you need to see on this videotape.’ So we popped it into our VHS, and before we actually saw the child that we were intended to see, we saw Lera.”
David remembers that Lera appeared to be bright and inquisitive, and at that moment the family knew that she was to be their child. Although adopting from Eastern Europe was a difficult, lengthy and expensive process, God kept opening the doors, Fami Doederlein said.
“Adoption just doesn’t happen expediently, but it really happened for us,” Fami said. “Everything just happened so smoothly, as if it were meant to be.”
When she was 2 years old in 2005, Lera officially became a Doederlein.
Lera was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the muscles and joints in her legs. During her younger years, she used crutches and leg braces, which didn’t allow for much mobility. “It was doable. I could get around, but it wasn’t what I wanted to get through life,” Lera said.
“It could have turned out completely wrong, and I wouldn’t be walking at all anymore. But I had to really trust God, and it just felt so right.”
In 2016, when Lera was in seventh grade, the Doederleins met with an orthopedic surgeon who predicted that as Lera grew, she would eventually have little-to-no mobility because her legs wouldn’t sufficiently support her. This was the first time the family began considering an amputation surgery.
Fami and Lera quickly supported the idea of the surgery, and while David was hesitant, through prayer and God’s guidance, he eventually agreed as well. Lera said her parents trusted her to make the final decision, and she remembers looking to God for hope.
“It could have turned out completely wrong, and I wouldn’t be walking at all anymore. But I had to really trust God, and it just felt so right,” Lera said. “I don’t exactly know how to explain it, but it just, it was a pit in my stomach basically where I knew I had to do it. A huge part of that was God just leading me toward that decision.”
In 2016, doctors amputated both of Lera’s legs above the knee. Her recovery process was smooth, and David attributes that to Lera’s focus and determination. Within three months, Lera was fit for prosthetic legs. Because of her hard work in physical therapy, she was able to walk on them immediately.
Shortly after this, Lera learned about the sport of sled hockey, which is an adapted version of ice hockey created for those unable to play stand-up hockey due to a disability, according to Disabled Sports USA. Players are seated on sleds and use ice sticks to navigate and control the puck.
“After getting on the ice for the first time, it was like nothing that I’ve ever felt before,” Lera said. “It was complete freedom, and I knew I’d have to do that for the rest of my life.”
In addition to sled hockey, Lera also became involved in handcycling, and Carlos Moledo, a national handcycling champion, asked her to join the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s first all-women’s handcycling team.
Lera said she had tried sports before but didn’t feel like she had the right tools. “I’d try a sport, and it didn’t really feel like my thing,” she said. “I never knew about adaptive sports in the first place, so having that amputation was a life changer.”
After receiving a grant to purchase sled hockey equipment, Lera has exceeded all expectations.
She is a member of the U.S. Women’s Developmental Sled Hockey team and of the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey team, an affiliate of the NHL Anaheim Ducks.
David said he and Fami always remind Lera to stay grounded and to place her trust in God.
“Regardless of how much she strives in adaptive sports, if she remains faithful to God and makes sure that that guides her every decision, then we’ll be happy,” David said. “That’s more important than reaching the pinnacle of success in any career. That’s No. 1.”
Lera also has a goal to make it to the Paralympics. While sled hockey is not yet a Paralympic sport, handcycling is.
“Her goals are really to make the Paralympics. I mean probably not next year in Tokyo, but beyond that, that’s a big goal,” David said.
Lera’s parents hope her journey and heart for others will continue to inspire many.
“She has a really huge heart for serving others, and I believe she’s doing that through bringing adaptive sports awareness and encouraging others through mentorship and support,” Fami said. “She’s a great mentor to younger kids who may have a disability. She is so open, and she loves doing show-and-tell with her prosthetic leg.”
Fami said Lera reaches out and shows others what her legs are like and displays how capable she is. “She’s able. We don’t believe in the word ‘disability.’ We believe in the word ‘able.’ You may be different, just slightly different — differently able.”
The Doederleins also said their experience with adaptive sports helps bring awareness to Challenged Athletes Foundation and similar organizations.
“As a church member, we tend to be great networkers but not necessarily great networkers outside of the church,” Fami said. “I think those [organizations] are a great service to our church communities — it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, but you’re welcome.”
In 2018, the Doederleins moved to San Diego, where David works as director of enterprise analytics for Petco, and Fami is a nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital. The family are members of North County Church of Christ in Escondido, California.
“I believe her faith is what drives her to want to live with excellence and accomplish what she sets out to achieve.”
David said he only knew one person in San Diego: Kevin Withem, senior minister and elder of North County Church of Christ. The two baseball fans bonded at Harding while watching the 1984 World Series.
David was from Detroit and rooted for the Tigers; Withem was rooting for the San Diego Padres. “We were the only people sitting in the student center watching the World Series,” David said, “We connected through that. He’s just a great person.”
Withem said Lera’s story will inspire others to go beyond any limits.
“I believe her faith is what drives her to want to live with excellence and accomplish what she sets out to achieve,” Withem said. “Her life is lived in such a way that she gives glory to God for those things, so she’s always pointing people to the source of her strength.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.