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In which expectations get defied: Lena Maria Klingvall

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

If you’d like to capture the attention of the TED crowd, you could always give an 18 minute talk about orgasms. Or you could swallow a sword. Or do rope tricks.

Ross Evans of Xtraycle tries the latter strategy. After biking on stage on his “sport utility bicycle”, he does a brilliant job of not selling from the stage. Instead, he jumps through the rope, on one leg, sideways. He’s really good at it. It makes you wonder what other talents TEDsters have.

Lena Maria Klingvall probably isn’t going to do rope tricks… but she just might. Born in Sweden in 1968, she had no arms, and one of her legs was badly underdeveloped. Her parents were encouraged to put her in an institution, but her mother fell in love with her smile and raised her at home.

Klingvall is thankful that she was born in a progressive, wealthy country with parents able to raise and care for her… and tells us she’s lucky that she enjoys having people stare at her.

As a child, she discovered some things could actually be easier for her, using her feet than for peers using their hands. She tells us that chopsticks are lots easier with your feet. And swimming is a sport where arms can sometimes be an obstacle, not a benefit. As a teenager, she qualified to compete in the Swedish games. She won three silver medals, and was asked to join the Swedish swim team. She represented Sweden in the world championships, won two medals in butterfly, one in backstroke and then won four golds at the European championship in Paris.

That wasn’t enough for Klingvall. She turned to music, training as a singer and touring Europe and in Asia. She is, as they say, big in Japan, where she’s given dozens of concert tours, and where there’s a Lena Maria manga, with blue eyes, and “a perfect figure”.

Many of her friends are more fascinated by her everyday life than her more unusual achievements – her ability to knit and write caligraphy with her feet, to pump gasoline using her chin and shoulder. After she writes beautiful text with her feet and her mouth, it’s not hard to imagine that she might next pull out a rope and starting to do some tricks.

Lena’s been desperate for independence all her life. At thirteen, she wanted to go to summer camp, and didn’t want an assistant, who would feel like a second parent. So she worked with a prosthetic specialist to develop a stick with a hook that she can use to dress herself, a key piece of technology for her independence. She tells us she’s raced the Taiwanese president in a swimming race, and taking a motorcycle vacation with her ex-husband. The one thing she hasn’t been able to do is drive an 18-wheel truck – she’s always wanted to, if only to see what reactions she could get. She does, however, drive an SUV using her feet.

It’s clear Lena loves being in the spotlight, and that the attention of the TED crowd is a balm for her. It’s hard to imagine how her life might have been if she hadn’t been someone who drew strength and sustenance from being special and different.

4 thoughts on “In which expectations get defied: Lena Maria Klingvall”

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