Judy Coffman of the women’s soccer team loves to talk, and
usually she speaks the truth. Occasionally, though, Judy likes to
give reporters a story to chew on.
“Sometimes I tell them my hand got bitten off by a shark,”
Coffman said. “They’re like, ‘No way.’ They ask if it was bloody,
and I just love to play along. I’m like, ‘It was spraying out blood
everywhere, and I almost passed out.’ They really go for it.”
Coffman’s fable is intriguing, to say the least, but what really
happened to the freshman’s hand? What occurred is nowhere near as
exciting as the shark story. Coffman was just born with a birth
defect – her left arm stops at her upper forearm.
Conventional thinking would lead Coffman to soccer and only
soccer in the athletic world, but she and her father would not let
her missing hand limit her athletic prowess. When she was younger,
Coffman also played basketball and tennis while growing up in San
Jose, Calif. Basketball? Tennis? How in the world were these feats
possible with just one hand?
“When you’re born like that, you find different ways to work
around it,” Coffman said. “With a lot of work, my dad helped me to
learn how to serve a tennis ball with my left arm.”
Learning to serve a tennis ball was not the only thing Coffman
“It took me a year longer than everyone else to learn to tie my
shoe,” Coffman said. “Also, my mom did my hair until I was 12, and
it took me two years to learn to put my hair into a pony tail.
“Learning how to do things while growing up took a lot of time,
but if you have an accident (in the middle of your life) it’s so
much harder to adapt to something you’re not used to.”
Coffman was such a good athlete at a younger age that she had to
make a tough decision at the age of 13. She was playing on the
California state teams for both tennis and soccer and like someone
trying to hold down two jobs, Coffman eventually ran out of
“I chose soccer because it’s a team sport and I felt I could
meet more friends,” she said.
More recently, after Coffman had proven that soccer and tennis
were well within her grasp, Coffman challenged herself again – the
California girl learned to surf.
“I didn’t want her to do it,” her father, Doug Coffman, said. “I
was afraid for her safety after she was knocked off the board.”
Her father was reluctant, but Judy was as persistent as a
30-year-old minor league baseball player.
“People doubted that I could surf because you have to paddle
with two hands. I gave it a shot and at first, it was the most
frustrating thing ever. But I kept trying, and now I know how to do
Where did all this inspiration come from? How was she able to
look past her arm and give the extra effort needed to achieve just
While growing up, Coffman was aware of what Jim Abbott was
accomplishing in Major League Baseball, and she was especially
impressed because Abbott was a pitcher. To field the pitcher’s
position with one hand was as miraculous as a midget dunking a
Coffman was also impressed with Abbott’s previous
accomplishments, most notably:
“I think it’s so cool that he was a Wolverine. Maybe someone
else will consider Michigan because of us.”
Coffman’s father showed Judy a video of Pete Gray, a one-armed
Major League ballplayer in the 1940s. Gray played the outfield and
even batted with just one arm.
“We showed her the video,” her father said. “It showed her that
anything was possible, but I think it’s more amazing that she
played tennis than soccer.”
Abbott and Gray gave hope to Coffman growing up, and she aspires
to be as inspirational to others. After committing to Michigan last
year, Coffman traveled to Santa Clara, Calif., to watch the
Wolverines compete. She was dressed as if she had won a $1000 gift
certificate to the M-Den when she met a spectator with a similar
“There was a little girl sitting in front of us, and she had no
hands,” Coffman said. “She was watching the game, and I introduced
myself and let her know that anything was possible. She’s my
inspiration. I don’t know if I’m hers, but I hope I can be.”
Coffman had difficulty adjusting to college life at first. But
now she’s coming around.
Before the season, the soccer team embarked on a canoe trip that
was supposed to bring its members closer together. Coffman has many
skills one might not expect her to have, but canoeing is not one of
“It was the hardest thing ever,” Coffman said. “Brenna
(Mulholland) was in the back of my canoe, and she had to row both
sides. She hated it because she was working for both of us.”
Despite the canoeing debacle, Coffman and Mulholland have become
good friends. Coach Debbie Rademacher matched the two to be
roommates for the year, and both freshmen feel like the pairing was
a huge success. Rademacher has a history of matching incoming
“By the time the freshmen get here, I think I know them pretty
well,” Rademacher said. “Judy and Brenna came from the same kind of
background – both have a couple of sisters. You usually think of
family when matching girls.”
While living together, the girls share tons of laughs.
Mulholland likes to tell how she has diagnosed Coffman with
“The other day there were over 50 ladybugs in our room, and Judy
looked like she might have an anxiety attack,” Mulholland said. “So
I had to save the day and get rid of them all. Now I just throw
bugs at her to make her cry a little.”
As for her soccer, Coffman is receiving significant playing
time, especially for a freshman. The left midfielder has a valuable
skill that is rare in the collegiate game.
“She’s a left-footer and she can hit a left-footed cross,”
Rademacher said. “There aren’t many girls who can do that at this
Coffman tallied her first point against Iowa State in the team’s
sixth game of the year. She raced down the left flank and crossed
the ball to senior Stephanie Chavez, who netted the Wolverines’
fourth goal of the game and secured Michigan’s first victory.
“My first assist was exciting,” Coffman said. “But I’d love to
score a goal pretty soon.”
Even in Ann Arbor, hundreds of miles away from San Jose, Coffman
has had plenty of support from her family. Her parents have made it
out to almost half of the Wolverines’ games this season.
“It feels great to see her play,” her father said. “It was
always a dream of hers.”
Throughout most of her life, Coffman has felt totally
comfortable with herself and the way she was born. If given the
opportunity to change anything, she would not change her arm.
“I’m thankful it formed like that because it’s who I am,”
Coffman said. “Why would you change who you are?”
Although Coffman feels this way now, there was a time not so
long ago when she became a little anxious about her appearance.
“Back in California, I was ‘Little Coffman,’ so teachers and
kids kind of knew me,” Coffman said. “But coming to Michigan, I was
really scared because I didn’t know anyone. Last winter I got
really self-conscious about my arm. It was more of a social thing.
I wondered what guys would think, and I was really nervous about
meeting new people.”
Coffman went to a doctor and got a fake hand that she could put
on which looked exactly like her other hand.
“My friends in California got mad at me for wearing it,” Coffman
said. “They said I had no reason to be self-conscious, but it was
easy for them to say because they weren’t heading to a brand new
“So I brought the hand with all my other stuff when I came out
to school, but I haven’t worn it yet. At this liberal school, if
people don’t think I’m normal just because of the way I look, then
that’s their fault. I’m not going to say I’m always confident about
my hand, but that is who I am. I think I’m just going to send (the
fake hand) back.”