A congenital amputee finds love after scaling a wall of self-doubt.
“Growing up, I was always pretty self-conscious,” says Team USA paraclimber Kaitlin Heatherly. “Not only of my arm, but also my weight.”
Born without her left arm below the elbow, the Georgia native struggled with shaky confidence and low self-esteem until very recently. She used humor as a coping mechanism, but the fear of judgment was always there. And nobody judged Heatherly more harshly than she did herself.
“I didn’t really view myself as a strong person,” she says. “My upper body felt useless. I didn’t feel like it was something that I could purposefully use.”
That’s not how you’d expect a world-class rock climber to describe herself. Now that she’s qualified for the last two IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships, Heatherly realizes she was selling herself short, imposing limits that didn’t really exist. But at the time—not all that long ago—the boundaries seemed very real to her. Heatherly tended to avoid strenuous challenges and wasn’t very physically active. That made her focus on her weight, which only reinforced the cycle of self-criticism.
None of this interfered with her professional success—she earned a master’s degree and got established in her career as an occupational therapist. But Heatherly’s negative body image put a damper on her personal life. She had one boyfriend she considered serious, but for the most part her romantic pursuits were casual and unfulfilling.
“I felt like nobody cared,” she says.
That all changed in one short week in October 2017. First she connected with a guy named Duncan Cruickshank on a dating app. In a departure from her usual pattern, she disclosed her limb difference in her dating profile. It didn’t seem to bother Cruickshank. Their first date was a hike, and they seemed to hit it off. It was a promising start.
A day or two later, Heatherly went off to a four-day SheLift retreat in Moab, Utah, with four other upper-limb amputees. Founded by one-time Bachelor contestant Sarah Herron—who, like Heatherly, was born without her lower left arm—SheLift dares women with physical differences to take risks, confront self-doubt, and tear down the barriers they’ve built around themselves. It was one of the most intense and rewarding things Heatherly had ever done.
She came home a changed woman.
“When I came back from this retreat,” Heatherly says, “I was really emotional. Duncan offered to be a sounding board for me to process everything. He sat on the phone with me for two hours.”
She’d always feared her vulnerabilities and (perceived) imperfections would drive people away. But by showing the courage to face those challenges, Heatherly found the opposite to be true. Everything between her and Cruickshank seemed to click. Their relationship deepened.
“With him, my arm was never a thing,” she says. “In fact, I think he loves me more because of how it shaped me and what I’ve overcome. He just sees me as Kaitlin—not ‘Kaitlin-with-one-arm.’ He 100 percent accepts me.”
Setting the Route
Heatherly first tried rock-climbing with a childhood friend from Atlanta, but it didn’t go all that well. She wasn’t ready to commit the time and money it would take to get really good at it. And she still had that bad old habit of getting down on herself.
After a week of hiking and rappelling in Utah’s canyon country, however, she decided to give it another shot—this time with Cruickshank.
“It was a great bonding moment,” Heatherly says. “He was very gentle with me. I think I would have quit if he was more intense or pushed me. I would get really mad, and he would know it was my frustration talking. He was very understanding and encouraging.”
His patience and her persistence paid off a while later, when they attended an adaptive bouldering festival. Far from being dismissed as a newbie who didn’t belong, Heatherly was embraced with open arms—and her ability opened some eyes. Within a few months she’d made it to the 2018 US Adaptive National Climbing Championships, where she finished fourth. That qualified her for her first trip to Worlds, just a few months after taking up the sport in earnest. She made it back to Worlds again last year.
“Climbing has changed how I view myself in every way possible,” she says. “I have so much confidence in my body and feel stronger than ever when I’m on the wall. I feel capable of adapting and problem-solving anything, and I have seen it transfer over to many other aspects of life.”
Including her love life. Last December, after about 15 months of dating, she and Cruickshank got engaged.
“My self-love was still evolving when I met Duncan,” she says. “I think the love that I have found for myself grew due to being with such a supportive and great partner. I don’t depend on him for reassurance or confidence. I’ve found those things within myself. But when I’m struggling in those areas, especially when climbing or having a hard time adapting to something, he’s right there.”
Having that kind of support has helped Heatherly scale the heights. It’s also helped her realize that she’s hardly alone in struggling to find self-acceptance. Whether you’re managing limb difference or dealing with something else, everybody’s got some sort of obstacle. It’s part of being human.
And the only thing to do is pull yourself up and over.
“The main thing I want to convey is that none of this came easy,” she says. “Nothing that has that big of an impact on your life will come easy.”