Chris Koch likes to put people at ease, even though he knows his appearance often does the opposite.
Born without arms and legs – he has portions of each arm down to about where the elbow would start and a portion of his right thigh, which has a partially formed foot on the end – Koch (pronounced Cook) has traveled the word as a motivational speaker and doesn’t mind the inevitable stares he receives when traveling the world. In fact, he welcomes them.
"Honestly, the greatest equalizer or icebreaker just a smile," said Koch, a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “People can see, 'Hey, he’s a pretty happy person. He’s obviously not some miserable amputee.’”
Koch, 39, was at Samuel Vaughn Elementary School, speaking to an assembly of about 300 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in the school’s cafeteria. He was asked to attend by Modesto Marathon co-race director Karen Lozano, a teacher at Vaughn. Koch competed in last year’s marathon, finishing in 4 hours, 27 minutes. He’s back to compete again on Sunday for his fourth full marathon.
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He’s also competed in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. and the Calgary Marathon in his hometown. Koch prowled the stage while perched atop his skateboard, which he now favors over the use of prosthetic limbs.
“I thought it would be fun to cruise around on,” said Koch, who purchased the skateboard eight years ago at a surf shop in Florida and uses it by sitting on the platform and pushing with the his right thigh. “Five minutes down the sidewalk, I must’ve covered 10 times the distance in half the time that it would’ve taken me using prosthetic legs.”
Koch’s message to the students of Vaughn Elementary was a simple one: everybody goes through difficulties in life, but don’t let the difficulties define you.
“We all have frustrating days,” said Koch, who has visited five continents as a motivational speaker. “We all have bad days, but me missing my arms and legs is the least of my worries.”
Lozano, who is co-director of the Modesto Marathon, said Koch's visit was an important lesson for students in diversity — "that not everyone is the same and that's OK. We need to be who we are and be OK with that."
Koch also sends a powerful message, Lozano said, to inspire kids to be their best.
"If he can be successful with no arms and legs, we should never be afraid to persevere and dream big," she said. "Our dreams might just come true."
In addition to competing in marathons, Koch snow skis, bungee jumps and swims with sharks.
“I’m already missing my arms and legs,” he quipped. “What else have I got to lose?”
In fact, he recently was in Australia where he was submerged in a shark cage and got to view great white sharks up close.
“It was my first time,” he told the assembly. “I told people that it was my second time and the first time didn’t go so well.”