Phoenix high school softball player with cerebral palsy shares her ‘life without limits’

15-year-old Charlie Duffy proudly shares her struggles and how she’s overcome them.
15-year-old Charlie Duffy proudly shares her struggles and how she’s overcome them.
Updated: Jul. 21, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- The motto of United Cerebral Palsy is “Life Without Limits.” Few represent that better than a Valley high school softball player, who is UCP Central Arizona’s Youth Ambassador because of her work as an advocate. 15-year-old Charlie Duffy proudly shares her struggles and how she’s overcome them.

“I think being vulnerable is hard,” says Charlie, who was recently the emcee of a gala for cerebral palsy. “But also being vulnerable can inspire people. Like your hero – the only reason they’re your hero is because they’re vulnerable to share their story.”

Charlie’s hero story started when she was two. She could walk but was unable to hop, skip or jump. Doctors diagnosed her with cerebral palsy. “Initially, we were just overwhelmed with questions and concerns and just probably fear, a lot of fear of not knowing anything about it,” says Charlie’s mom, Heather Duffy.

At United Cerebral Palsy, the Duffy family learned CP is a motor disability affecting movement. For Charlie, it’s the entire left side of her body. She would start physical therapy immediately, and a life of medical procedures began. “She comes in,” recalls Charlie’s physical therapist, Atalie Holem, “spunky, she was up for the challenge. She had the drive. It was internal. It was internal. Like, ‘I’m not gonna let this stop me.’”

She didn’t. To keep her foot from turning in, Charlie wore a cast or brace on her left leg throughout childhood, including while playing sports. Heather remembers, “Parents would be like, ‘your daughter’s in a cast.’ She’s not broken. It was never a reason not to do something.”

“I’m the only person at school that wore them,” says Charlie. “But I was like, ‘I’m the only person at school who wears these!’ It was kind of like, God made you different for a reason and it’s cool.

Charlie never felt embarrassed, never complained, never made excuses. “I would just be like, it doesn’t matter what I have, I’m still Charlie, like my personality didn’t change at all,” she says.

Softball was always Charlie’s main love, and she would grow into quite the player. By the time she reached Northwest Christian High School and made the varsity team as a freshman, no casual observer could even tell anything was wrong. “It’s kind of like a hidden secret in my pocket that I will just throw at some people, and they’ll be like, ‘what?’,” she laughs.

Heather says watching her play, the first word that comes to mind is fierce. “Like she wants to prove that she deserves to be out there and everything that she has been through is worth it.”

But by the end of the season this past spring, Charlie was in such pain, her left leg so tight, she would need to undergo major surgery for the second time in her life. Doctors cut and lengthened her Achilles and hamstring, then cut her femur in half and rotated it.

“Now that I’m older,” says Charlie, “I knew the recovery process and it crossed my mind like it’s gonna be a long time before I could play again. And it’s gonna be scary, but I think everything’s scary and you have to overcome the fear if you really love it.”

Even sidelined, watching her club softball team practice from a wheelchair, Charlie would find ways to work on her game, running through seated drills with an assistant coach. “It’s crossed my mind that it’s super easy to quit,” she says, “but I’m not gonna quit, I’m gonna keep working harder.”

Now, Charlie is back at UCP, back on her feet, basically learning to walk again through physical therapy. A college scholarship and the bigger picture are still on this rising sophomore’s mind. “If I play at the next level and can share my story, I can be more of an advocate to people with disabilities, says Charlie. “Like, if I’m up here doing this, like, so can you.”

Holem, guiding Charlie as she walks while strapped into a zero-gravity harness, says, “she shines so bright and she’s gonna change the world.” Vulnerability was never a weakness for this teenager. “I love sharing my story because it’s cool to like firsthand, inspire people,” smiles Charlie.

In her own words, that’s how every hero began. “I have a disability, so they would call it,” she says. “But I don’t think anybody with a disability, like, visibly or not, it doesn’t define you as a person. It’s just a part of your story.”

Charlie will continue physical therapy for at least the next few months, but she hopes to be back on the field, playing softball again, by the end of the year.