By Liane O’Neil

Ask Mike Alt about the first time he swung from the monkey bars and his eyes light up. He beams. Fingers wrapped around a cold metal bar; hesitating, then straining the hips to create the momentum to connect one hand to the next bar. Alt’s hands gesture as he recalls the memories of a 4-year-old.

“It was one of those things that I didn’t really think about once I started,” Alt said. “I went four rings through and I dropped.”

He had accomplished what doctors once declared impossible.

“I saw my mom, and she had to turn her head because she didn’t want me to see her crying.”

He snaps his fingers.

“And I figured out at that moment that nothing was going to stop me.”

Smack.

A lime green tennis ball sails across the courts of Damonte Ranch High School where Alt works as an assistant tennis and basketball coach. Alt swings, and counters the ball with an easy backhand. He rushes forward and strikes the next offender into his opponent’s court with speed and precision.

“He’s drill motivated,” said Aaron Cook, Alt’s best friend. “He likes to see what other people do and do it better. He’s very competitive.”

Alt springs into the air, his arm swinging in a full arc. His muscles flex as the felt ball meets his racket. Well-worn calluses between his two fingers tug at the grip of the tennis racket.

“People tell me I have a stronger grip than most people they come across,” Alt said. “When I play golf or tennis or anything like that my pressure points are so different. I would say that my grip strength is equal to, if not stronger than, most people.”

His hand loosens on the grip, the racket swings by his side. He looks up.

“Something else about me? I hate the words ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled.’”

Born into Adversity

Michael Kenneth Alt was born on December 12, 1989 in Santa Clara, Calif. He had only a thumb and a pinky on each hand, the result of a congenital birth defect.

One nose, four fingers, ten toes.

“I was very upset,” said Debra Alt, his mother.

She and her husband, Steve kept asking themselves why it had happened to them.

“I felt so hurt, I just didn’t understand it,” Debra Alt said.

His parents consulted with physicians at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Los Angeles. Doctors gave them few options. One was an invasive procedure that involved removing Alt’s toes and reattaching them to his fingers.

“My mom’s response to that was, ‘Why take something that’s perfect and then try to transform that into something that’s not going to be even close to perfect?’” Alt said.

And that was that.

“Growing up was tough because I would get bullied every day,” Alt said. “Kids would call me ‘two fingers,’ ‘no hands,’ ‘claw hands’ and ‘lobster hands.’ There were times that I couldn’t go months without being bullied at least once a day.

“Then I’d have adults that would stare at me. They wouldn’t make remarks, but I could tell they were judging me. It took me a while to understand that they were more interested in what they were seeing rather than being judgmental and hurtful.”

“Kids suppress their feelings so much,” said Jennifer Alt, his sister. “I know Michael kind of did that, too. He didn’t talk about it a whole lot.”

Alt got into the habit of shoving his hands into his pockets when he was in public.

“Even the games we went to– I’d go ‘Get your hands out of your pockets and start being like the rest of us,’” Debra Alt said. “I just didn’t want him to hide the fact. There was nothing to hide.”

The Design of an Athlete

Steve Alt placed a bat in his son’s hands when Alt was two years old. He asked whether Alt was going to be right or left handed.

Alt quickly caught on.

“He would drive me crazy,” Steve Alt said. “He would say, ‘dad, let’s go to Cupertino Park.’ And I would have a bucket of balls. I would be like, ‘Can we quit now?’ ‘No, come on dad. I gotta hit the outfield grass. I gotta hit it.’”

Despite his limb difference, Alt astonished everyone by proving he was quite a good athlete.

“Tennis was always something that was fun for me and my parents just to go out and play,” Alt said. “I was eight or nine years old and my dad was like, ‘Ok, let’s go hit around some tennis balls.”

He understood his missing fingers placed him at a disadvantage. This pushed him to outperform himself in a variety of sports. Although he wrote and threw with his right hand, he trained himself to play golf and swing a bat with his left.

Alt’s family moved to Reno in 2003. Alt began attending Damonte Ranch High School, where he met Mike Flatley.

“The first thing I noticed about him was he could swing the racket, and he had a very good understanding of the game,” said Flatley, varsity tennis coach. “I didn’t have to teach him much.”

Alt soon joined the varsity team. He spent the next two years of high school playing primarily as a doubles player, even competing in regionals.

He then set his aspirations higher.

“People doubted me and said I would never be a collegiate athlete,” Alt said.

In fall of 2008 he started playing for Sierra College in Sacramento.

Following a short career there, he returned to Reno. The recession had left him and his family unable to cover the costs of an out-of-state school.

It was a setback that couldn’t smother his passion.

Return to Drills

It’s the end of the 2013 season for the Damonte Ranch varsity team. Mike Alt stands at the front of a conference room at the Tamarack Junction. He holds a microphone in one hand, and with the other he shakes the hands of his pupils who come up to receive awards for the season. Twenty-two girls, eleven boys.

As soon as he leaves the stage to sit down, Alt is flooded with students holding large cardboard tennis balls, requesting Coach Mike to sign each and every one. He takes his time, thoughtfully writing personal notes to every player.

“Coach Mike doesn’t do it because it’s a job,” Ludlow said. “He’s invested in it. It’s a constant. Every year, the girls know that no matter who their coach is going to be, he’ll be there. He listens, he cares.”

Following his return to Reno, Alt contacted Flatley to ask about getting involved with his old team again. After little thought, Flatley invited the 19-year-old on as an assistant coach.

“He’s a wonderful young man and he’s become a very, very good tennis coach,” Flatley said. “He brings a lot of understanding to the game.”

“He doesn’t just play it, he owns it, he’s good at it,” Ludlow said. “I think it’s good for my girls. There are no excuses.”

Can’t is Not an Excuse

In September 2012 Alt started his blog “Can’t is Not an Excuse.”

Initially an assignment for a personal branding class, the blog soon transformed into a platform through which Alt could tell his story and inspire an audience.

Alt recalled pausing at the end of his first post to consider what his tagline would be.

“I was like, ‘Well, what’s the one word that I hate in life more than anything?’ It’s the word ‘can’t’ because people have told me all my life that you can’t,” Alt said.

He follows up every blog with the phrase ‘Can’t is Not an Excuse.’

“It’s a reminder to myself that this is where you started from, don’t forget it,” Alt said.

Within one year the blog received over 5,300 views.

“I am glad to know there are amazing individuals like yourself he can relate to and be inspired by,” wrote one mother, whose son has a limb difference.

“I’m so excited I discovered this blog, I’m also a blogger with a limb difference,” another wrote.

While Alt’s stories often concentrate on his own adversity and triumphs, the blog contains a universal message about the power of perseverance and positivity.

In October 2013, Can’t is Not an Excuse was brought to a live stage at the University of Nevada, Reno where Alt spoke to an audience of over 100 people for a TEDx student speaking competition. A video of the event went viral, gaining attention that invited many opportunities. Since then, Alt has been invited to speak at Sam’s Club, as well as several elementary schools.

“I want to inspire the world,” Alt said. “I want to spread this message as far as I can. If I can do everything that I’ve done in my life, anyone else can do anything they want to do.”

His experience has led him to aspire to be a motivational speaker– a role model. He wants to travel the world and talk to the disadvantaged, give courage to those battling the odds.

Because not so long ago Mike Alt’s hands were in his pockets.

“If there were a miracle surgery, I would say no,” Alt said. “It’s something that’s become so empowering to me that I’m proud. I can honestly say I’m proud to have these hands.”

Liane O’Niell can be reached at news@nevadasagebrush.com.

personal notes to every player.

“Coach Mike doesn’t do it because it’s a job,” Ludlow said. “He’s invested in it. It’s a constant. Every year, the girls know that no matter who their coach is going to be, he’ll be there. He listens, he cares.”

Following his return to Reno, Alt contacted Flatley to ask about getting involved with his old team again. After little thought, Flatley invited the 19-year-old on as an assistant coach.

“He’s a wonderful young man and he’s become a very, very good tennis coach,” Flatley said. “He brings a lot of understanding to the game.”

“He doesn’t just play it, he owns it, he’s good at it,” Ludlow said. “I think it’s good for my girls. There are no excuses.”

Can’t is Not an Excuse

In September 2012, Alt started his blog, “Can’t is Not an Excuse.”

Initially an assignment for a personal branding class, the blog soon transformed into a platform through which Alt could tell his story and inspire an audience.

Alt recalled pausing at the end of his first post to consider what his tagline would be.

“I was like, ‘Well, what’s the one word that I hate in life more than anything?’ It’s the word ‘can’t’ because people have told me all my life that you can’t,” Alt said.

He follows up every blog with the phrase ‘Can’t is Not an Excuse.’

“It’s a reminder to myself that this is where you started from, don’t forget it,” Alt said.

Within one year the blog received over 5,300 views.

“I am glad to know there are amazing individuals like yourself he can relate to and be inspired by,” wrote one mother, whose son has a limb difference.

“I’m so excited I discovered this blog, I’m also a blogger with a limb difference,” another wrote.

While Alt’s stories often concentrate on his own adversity and triumphs, the blog contains a universal message about the power of perseverance and positivity.

In October 2013, Can’t is Not an Excuse was brought to a live stage at the University of Nevada, Reno where Alt spoke to an audience of over 100 people for a TEDx student speaking competition. A video of the event went viral, gaining attention that invited many opportunities. Since then, Alt has been invited to speak at Sam’s Club, as well as several elementary schools.

“I want to inspire the world,” Alt said. “I want to spread this message as far as I can. If I can do everything that I’ve done in my life, anyone else can do anything they want to do.”

His experience has led him to aspire to be a motivational speaker– a role model. He wants to travel the world and talk to the disadvantaged, give courage to those battling the odds.

Because not so long ago Mike Alt’s hands were in his pockets.

“If there were a miracle surgery, I would say no,” Alt said. “It’s something that’s become so empowering to me that I’m proud. I can honestly say I’m proud to have these hands.”

Liane O’Niell can be reached at news@nevadasagebrush.com.