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Fil-Am Jessica Cox: Guinness World Records first armless pilot

Jessica Cox, a Filipino-American professional motivational speaker, embodies the phrase “anything is possible.”

Aside from being a celebrated speaker, she is also a fourth degree Taekwondo black belter, plays the piano, and has the licenses necessary to be a scuba diver, driver, and pilot.

But what makes these and all of her other credentials special is that Jessica was born without arms, a rare birth defect.

Given her condition, even the simple acts of tying her shoe laces and putting on contact lenses can be considered achievements.

That Jessica is an in-demand motivational speaker and a Guinness World Records holder as the first pilot with no arms only proves that limitations are a matter of perspective.

BORN WITHOUT ARMS

Jessica, now 38, was born on February 2, 1983 in the United States.

Her Filipina mom Inez was from Eastern Samar and then worked in the U.S., where she met and later married William Clinton Cox, an American. The couple had Jessica, a son, and another daughter.

When Jessica was born, both her arms were absent, a condition called Phocomelia Syndrome.

Medical websites describe this condition as a birth defect where the limbs, particularly the upper ones, are shortened or absent.

While Jessica’s parents tried their best to give her a normal childhood, she couldn’t help but notice the obvious as she was growing up.

“When I was younger, I would always ask my mother, ‘Why did God make me this way?’” Jessica recounted.

To which her mom would respond, “Be patient, Jessica, be patient. You’ll never know what God has planned.”

Jessica’s story was featured on GMA News and Public Affairs’ Stories of Hope on May 17, 2021.

Even if the young Jessica was nurtured and well taken care of in her home, she felt alienated outside of her house.

“I have always felt that I was different. It was very difficult as a child to be different because people would always stare at me, or point, and ask questions,” she recounted.

“And it was very hard when I was younger.”

To somehow cope with her “shortcomings,” she was made to wear prosthetic arms as a kid.

“I did use prosthetic hands for eleven years. They were very difficult to use, fake arms—they were heavy, they were awkward.”

Jessica described one advantage that her prostheses gave her.

“It did make it easier to blend in when I had a sweater over them, or jacket over them.”

However, the cons outweighed the pros. She felt more comfortable using her legs and feet in doing things.

So, after more than a decade with prosthetic arms, she embraced the “wholeness” of her physical attributes.

“And finally, though, after 11 years, I decided to give them up and I left them behind.

“I walked to my first day of eighth grade, at the age of 14, without them and it was the best decision that I ever made.

“I was finally going to be the person God created me to be,” she beamed.

Though she may have felt different from the others because of her missing arms, Jessica never felt disabled.

She said, “I have been limitless since I was a child. My feet have become my hands for as long as I could remember.

“My toes are my fingers for everything, and I don’t even think differently about it.”

A SPEAKER, A PILOT

In college, Jessica took up Psychology at the University of Arizona. She graduated with flying colors in 2005.

She was able to get a driver’s license too.

After graduation, she became a professional motivational speaker, a job that gave her the platform to talk about seeing the positive in a negative situation.

Jessica proved to be an effective and credible speaker because she was a living testament to her message.

However, there was another career that fascinated Jessica, even if she also feared it: flying.

An opportunity to conquer her fear of flying presented itself, when she met a former fighter pilot, Robin Stoddard.

Robin founded the charity organization Wright Flight, which aims to empower kids into achieving more in life.

While reluctant at first, Jessica turned negative thoughts into positive to motivate her, she said in an article in www.aerotime.aero.

She stepped up to the challenge and was able to get scholarship with the help of another charity organization, Able Flight.

For the next three years, Jessica studied and trained with the help of her instructor, Parrish Traweek.

She would maneuver a low-wing monoplane with a single engine.

Jessica passed her check-ride on October 10, 2008, which made her a licensed pilot who is able to fly a light-sport aircraft.

The saying “It seems impossible until it’s done” applies to Jessica’s journey to becoming a pilot.

She said, “It changed my life forever, knowing that I was the first certified pilot without arms. [It] was such a privilege to be able to show the world what’s possible.

“Before I flew the airplane by myself, there were many challenges, and some of those were as simple as putting my headset so I can communicate; how to buckle myself into the seat belt.

“Some of the more difficult ones—how to land the plane safely, because that is very difficult to do, for anyone to learn. And it was especially difficult for me.

“There were challenges about how would the Federal Aviation Administration respond to my interest in being a pilot.”

But what initially seemed impossible to Jessica, she was able to prove that she could turn it into reality. And she did—once more—with flying colors.

GUINNESS WORLD RECORDs

Three years after she conquered her fear and became a fully-licensed pilot, Jessica was recognized by the Guinness World Records.

“In 2011, I was invited to Milan, Italy to receive the Guinness World Records medal for being the first female pilot to fly an airplane with her feet,” she said on GMA News.

“And it’s such a wonderful invitation. My mother was there, my brother was there, and we were all there to receive the award, and I was on live television.

“The official judges of the Guinness World Records gave me the medal and I wore the medal around my neck.”

But more than the recognition, the medal around her neck served as a badge of deeper mission.

“The goal was to bring awareness that the disability does not mean inability,” she said.

Jessica has a message for those who were born without arms, just like her.

“I would tell any child who has no arms, ‘You should be proud of your difference. You should be confident. Don’t let other people tear you down. Don’t let others hurt your feelings. Keep a smile on your face. Some days are gonna be harder than others, but it’s gonna be okay. And you will figure it out. So, stay strong, keep smiling, and remember to stay confident.’”

ON MEETING HER HUSBAND

A year after earning the Guinness World Records, Jessica marked a personal milestone.

In 2012, she married Patrick Chamberlaine, a fellow taekwondo trainee.

She recalled, “… When we met, it was when he was in fourth-degree and I was a first-degree black belt.”

As they trained to earn higher degrees of black belts, their relationship also flourished.

“And he is now a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo, and I’m now fourth-degree black belt…

“Now, I’ve been married for nine years. I can’t believe it,” she said happily.

She also said of their love story, “So, it was a journey of progressing through the martial arts, as well as getting to know Patrick, and through this marriage was a wonderful experience.

“It’s such a blessing to be married.”

MEMORIES OF THE PHILIPPINES

Jessica has been in touch with her Filipino roots early on.

Almost yearly, her family would visit Eastern Samar and savor the tropical life.

“My first trip to the Philippines was when I was eight years old. And I still remember how much I loved when someone climbed up a coconut tree.”

Seeing this, Jessica would recall stories of her mom about how the latter would climb coconut trees as a child.

Jessica said that she would enjoy getting those fresh coconuts cut open and relish their content.

“It was amazing,” Jessica beamed.

“And I continue to visit every couple of years. And in the recent last 10 to 15 years, I visited at least once a year, except for this past year, of course.

“Because all of us have not travelled,” she said, referring to the pandemic.

But had it not been for the pandemic, Jessica said she would have come back and visit.

“For me, it’s important to stay connected to my roots, my Filipino roots, my family that I’m very close with.

“They’re all there. Some are in Manila, some are still in Bobon [Northern Samar], Mercedes, Eastern Samar. Some are in Guiuan, Eastern Samar.

“So, they’re all over the place and it’s always important for me to travel and visit them, at least once a year, when I can.”

Being close to her Filipino roots is a legacy left by her mom, who passed away five years ago.

Though there is pain over her loss, Jessica bears in her heart the positive memories and things that her mom instilled in her.

Jessica explained, “She had such a joy about her. She was such a light to others, and I think that she wanted to teach that to us, her children, to light the world in the way that we can.”

A MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER IN THE TIME OF PANDEMIC

Jessica said that she has evolved as a motivational speaker in the last 15 years.

But more importantly, she feels invigorated to continue along this path and serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration to others.

“It’s so exciting to walk onstage, and to move people, and to excite them, and to motivate them, inspire them in just an hour of speaking.

“It is such a powerful experience when I’m up there, speaking, and sharing my story, being present with people,” she said.

What she gets in return makes every seminar worthwhile for Jessica.

“Seeing their eyes, and seeing their faces, their reaction, and energy, and how it lights up something in them, to believe that they can do anything…”

But even this life mission of hers faced a setback when pandemic happened in 2020.

Jessica recalled, “Last year, I did my very last in-person speech on March 11.

“And then after that all of my speeches were cancelled.”

However, this unfortunate global situation turned into another opportunity for Jessica to continue her mission.

Months into the pandemic, companies realized that a pep talk is needed now more than ever.

While in-person seminars are not conducive, digital could serve as another venue.

“It wasn’t until the Fall that companies realized [that] we still need to have motivational speeches… when they started to pivot to make it virtual.

“And we started to pivot, to provide virtual motivational, virtual speeches that I can deliver from my living room.

“And understanding how to adapt and make sure to continue to push the motivation, to continue to push inspiration out into the world, doing it from social media, with live videos.

“If it means doing it in my living room and delivering a keynote speech to a big company,” she said.

NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE

For Jessica, self-acceptance and knowing one’s worth, regardless what the society thinks, are fundamental to one’s success.

“The quote, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your permission,’ is such a beautiful quote, because I think a lot of times, we have to recognize that not everyone in the world is always going to be accepting of our differences,” explained Jessica.

“But we have to be the best version of our self, even if someone does not always accept us.

“And being the best version of our self is the best we can do.”

She stressed further, “We need to recognize how we respond to the outside world. It affects us.

“If we choose not to let the negativity affect us, it will transform our life for the better.”

And just like how much she has accomplished in life, Jessica wishes to tell everyone that they can also do the same, if they just believe in themselves.

“For all those who have been inspired by my story, I hope you can go out, and continue to follow your dreams.

“To accomplish your own impossibilities, to keep positive, to keep going, never give up, and to remember, with God, all things are possible.”

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