Bodybuilding Against All Odds

By Mersal Faizi

Meet Elizabeth “Elizzy” Galvan, a 40-year-old professional bodybuilder from Fargo, North Dakota, who doesn’t fit the stereotypical presentation of someone in her chosen sport. She is deaf, lives with Usher syndrome, and has one arm—all so-called limitations that make her success exceptionally inspirational.

Galvan lost her right arm at age 3 in an accident with an old-fashioned washing machine. The same year, she developed a bilateral hearing loss as a result of an illness and was fitted with hearing aids.

Photo Credit: Michael Kehoe

Photo Credit: Michael Kehoe

Galvan’s parents chose to enroll her in North Dakota School for the Deaf at age 3, where she learned to communicate with American Sign Language (ASL). Decades later, this remains her preferred mode of communication. She also uses notes, speech-to-text, and body language when her conversational partner does not know ASL.

During a routine vision screening test in school at age 16, Galvan was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, the most common genetic disorder causing progressive hearing and losses. The diagnosis was unexpected because Galvan does not have a known family connection to Usher syndrome. “This explained why I would always bump into things and lose my balance,” Galvan said.

Galvan’s father required she wear her hearing aids while she was in school. Though the devices improved her hearing, Galvan says she disliked them greatly because she found pride in her deafness and didn't want to change who she was. With the freedom to make her own decisions at 18, Galvan stopped wearing her hearing aids.

As an adult, Galvan learned how to function comfortably with the help of a friend and Usher advocate. Galvan’s friend recommended she ask someone to tap her shoulder when there is a step in front of her, and to use hand gestures close to her face to signal to her that others are present. These methods became necessary when her vision began to worsen and she was mistaken for being rude when bumping into people unknowingly.

In 2015, Galvan underwent a major back surgery that left her weaker than she was before. Through her own research, she discovered bodybuilding would help her regain strength. After just one bodybuilding session at the gym, Galvan felt energized and ready to improve herself mentally and physically. “My conditions don’t limit me, but motivate me to become stronger,” Galvan says.

Galvan exercises independently in facilities that fit her needs. Before joining or using a new gym, she carefully evaluates the space and equipment to make sure it’s well-lit and spacious.  She wants to make sure it's safe to work out in without further injuring herself.

Mersal Faizi headshot.jpeg

Still fairly new to bodybuilding, Galvan has already won awards in the sport. She has earned  second, third, and fourth place trophies in competitions and received an award for inspiring others from the National Physique Committee, the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the U.S. Galvan will participatie in her third bodybuilding competition in October 2019.

Galvan considers her bodybuilding journey her way of showing people she is capable of defeating the odds. “Disabilities don’t prevent us from doing anything,” she says, “they just make us do things differently.”

Former marketing & communications intern Mersal Faizi studies corporate communications at Baruch College.

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