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Upper Dublin High School athlete plays with only one arm — and inspires everyone

"It’s incredible what she’s able to do," said the coach. “She plays sports because she loves competing and loves being part of something that is bigger than herself.”

Berkley Harmon participates in drills during a tryout for the basketball team at the Upper Dublin High School Sports Complex in Fort Washington. Harmon is missing part of her left arm but is a multi-sport athlete.
Berkley Harmon participates in drills during a tryout for the basketball team at the Upper Dublin High School Sports Complex in Fort Washington. Harmon is missing part of her left arm but is a multi-sport athlete.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Sixteen-year-old Berkley Harmon wants everyone to know a couple of things about her.

First, she is a two-sport athlete who is missing her lower left arm. Second, she doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for her.

“I am very happy with who I am,” said the confident sophomore at Upper Dublin High School. "Happy with my life and, yeah, thank you.”

Berkley doesn’t remember the exact moment she knew she was different. Maybe it was when, as a baby, she discovered she wasn’t able to pick up something with her left arm the way she could with her right. And crawling was an issue.

“It was uneven when I was trying to crawl,” said Berkley. “I didn’t like how it felt.”

She skipped trying to navigate her world on all fours, said Lisa Harmon, Berkley’s mother. She was walking at about eight or nine months, and she mastered steps — with toys tucked under her arm — by her first birthday.

“She was never a baby who was afraid of things,” Harmon said. “She amazed me and still does.”

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Harmon was pregnant with twins in 2003 when she learned there were complications. One twin did not survive, and prenatal tests showed that the other twin, Berkley, would be born without part of her left arm.

Doctors said the missing lower limb was the result of a rare condition known as amniotic band syndrome. It occurs when strands of the amniotic sac separate and entangle fingers, toes, limbs, or other parts of the fetus. When the bands are tightly wound, they can restrict blood supply and affect development.

“It’s not something you can prepare for,” said Harmon. She battled depression during her pregnancy as she mourned what had happened to her babies. With the support of her family, though, she went from asking “Why me?” to vowing that she’d be the best mother and advocate she could be for her child.

Berkley came out of the womb strong, said Harmon. She hit the same milestones as most kids, taught herself how to tie her shoes, learned to roller-skate and ride a bike.

In earlier years, Berkley was fitted for a prosthetic lower arm but didn’t find it comfortable or like how it fit under sleeves. She had better luck with a specialized prosthetic she used when learning the violin, but wound up not sticking with the musical instrument. As technology advances, she might one day again try a prosthetic.

At this point, though, “I don’t see much need for it,” the teen said. “I can pretty much get by.”

When it came time to sign up for a sport, soccer seemed a natural choice. Berkley, who plays for the Montgomery United Soccer Club, developed a “true love” for the sport.

“That feeling you get when you score a goal or pass, it gives me a thrill, the teen said.

When she was younger, Berkley was not immune to stares from those curious about her missing limb. Irritated, she’d tell them that a shark bit off her arm. Eventually, she came to terms with the attention and instead took the initiative to explain to the gawkers, “That’s just how I was born.” Often, she said, it was the first time they’d met someone with her particular birth defect.

While Berkley hasn’t had to deal with any overt bullying in school because of her missing limb, the playing field has been a different story. Competitors have made some rude remarks “in the moment," she said.

“I really just do my best to ignore them,” Berkley said, because playing at a competitive high school level with one arm is more difficult and requires her full attention and focus.

Her persistence has paid off. This year Berkley was chosen to play on her school’s varsity soccer team as a sophomore.

Chuck Gesing, the varsity girls soccer coach at Upper Dublin High School, has watched Berkley grow as a player since middle school.

“The biggest thing with Berkley is that she has a motor that doesn’t quit,” he said. “She continues to impress us with her effort and how much she puts into it."

Recently, Berkley was sidelined after she fell playing soccer and broke the wrist in her right arm. Two weeks later, she suffered a concussion.

While she was grateful her mother was there to help her shower, get dressed, and help with homework when her broken arm became tired, it was “pretty annoying" because, like any teen, she wants to do things on her own.

“Things got a little harder than I expected once all that happened,” Berkley said. She thought about others with amniotic band syndrome who are missing two limbs. “It was an eye-opening moment.”

Once soccer season ended, Berkley turned her attention to basketball tryouts.

At a recent practice, she wasted no time as she ran up the court, caught the ball, dribbled twice, and deftly made the layup. In other drills, she effortlessly passed to teammates.

Morgan Funsten, the Upper Dublin High School girls’ basketball coach, is most impressed by Berkley’s athleticism, drive, and teamwork, he said.

“It’s incredible what she’s able to do,” Funsten said. “She plays sports because she loves competing and loves being part of something that is bigger than herself.”

Basketball practice doesn’t end when Berkley leaves school grounds. At home, she shoots hoops and sets up cones to practice dribbling to help build up her left arm. The realization that she has to work twice as hard to get to the level of her teammates has given her a confidence and determination that she can succeed at whatever she tries, Berkley said.

The teen has not ruled out playing at a college level, but only if it is at Ohio State University, her “dream school.” She hopes one day to study nursing or psychology. And, she knows there will be an adjustment as she becomes comfortable with new friends, she said.

“I’m prepared for it,” Berkley said. “I’m looking forward to see how I do in the real world."