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It started on Instagram in October 2015 with Meetra Nahavandi searching social media to find ways to do a plank that didn't hurt.
A photo caught her eye. It was posted by a man named Danny Toppan Rabello, who, like Nahavandi, was born with spina bifida myelomeningocele, a neural tube birth defect that occurs when the spinal column does not close during fetal development, causing nerve and spinal cord damage.
Nahavandi posted a comment on Rabello's Instagram, identifying herself as someone with spina bifida. She had a question about his approach to the exercise. "I just do it," Rabello replied.
"That's not helpful," Nahavandi wrote, explaining she isn't able to get on her tiptoes without pain.
The dialogue became spirited, moving to exchanges on Snapchat and then Skype video calls. Before long they found abundant common ground. Each had embraced fitness to help live their best lives. Over several days the messages became more personal.
It was Rabello who wrote, "You do know I'm in Brazil, right?"
Nahavandi, in Madison, was dismayed.
Yet the distance between them — 5,375 miles — did not derail them. They kept communicating, moving to Skype. After four months, they met in person, and today, nearly four years later, Nahavandi, 29, and Rabello, 33, are together in Madison, engaged to be married.
Their interest in fitness has endured and expanded. They've progressed as adaptive athletes to the point where in June they participated in the Red Bull 400, a nearly vertical sprint competition held in Park City, Utah. Their first race together last Thanksgiving was the Festival Foods Turkey Trot at Warner Park.
"My parents raised me to believe I was capable of whatever I put my mind to," Nahavandi says.
"Same for me," Rabello says. "I was raised to not let a minor detail dictate my life."
He grins, acknowledging he's just described spina bifida as "a minor detail." But it's an attitude — a refusal to let the condition define him — that he shares with Nahavandi, along with the hope that their athletic pursuits might inspire others.
Both had to deal with bullying growing up, being picked on because they were different.
Rabello was born in Curitiba, a large city in southern Brazil. His native language is Portuguese, but his mother taught English, so he learned it, too. He eventually studied business in college. He was living in São Bento do Sul in 2015 when he and Nahavandi connected on social media.
His interest in fitness came from necessity.
In his 20s, Rabello — who wears leg braces and crutches to walk long distances — started "feeling the consequences of spina bifida," including experiencing considerable pain and loss of strength in his legs. Exercise helped him manage the pain. He found he enjoyed it and started posting photos to his Instagram account. "Not to show off for others, but for myself, to stay motivated."
It was one of those photos that Nahavandi responded to. She was born in Madison, grew up in Cottage Grove and graduated from Monona Grove High School in 2008.
Nahavandi, who graduated from Edgewood College and today works at Community Living Connections, credits a fitness and nutrition program with helping her lose 35 pounds and gain enough leg strength that she wouldn't have to return to using braces. She gave up wearing leg braces in elementary school.
It was Nahavandi, during their social media interactions, who first said, "I think we have to meet face-to-face."
They'd already expressed deep feelings for one another. It was agreed that Rabello would come to Madison. The date: Feb. 13, 2016 — the eve of Valentine's Day.
Nahavandi got to the airport an hour early. She held a sign with the nicknames they have for each other. Rabello saw it and laughed.
"As many butterflies as there were," Nahavandi says, "it felt natural, comfortable."
Rabello stayed 10 days, and before he left, they were planning another visit. By late 2017, the year they got engaged, the couple was alternating trips to Madison and Brazil.
Rabello moved to Madison in summer 2018 to study small business administration at Madison College.
The 5K race they did last November was Rabello's first; Nahavandi had done earlier Walk for Wishes events.
The Turkey Trot, Nahavandi says, "was hard, because it was cold. And if I try walking fast, my hips hurt." Still, she finished in less than an hour. "Danny left me behind," she says.
"I just took off," Rabello says. "I'm kind of competitive, and if I walk too slowly, I start hurting." He finished in 48 minutes.
They were both pleased. "It jump-started us," Nahavandi says.
They then set their sights on the Red Bull race in Utah in June, which Nahavandi and Rabello finished in 43 and 45 minutes respectively. "The support we received from the bystanders and fellow racers was absolutely phenomenal," Nahavandi says.
"They have some big goals and you have to admire that," says Madison personal trainer Peter Kraus, who connected the couple with their current personal trainer. Kraus walked the Turkey Trot with Nahavandi.
"She did great," he says.
Their ultimate goal is twofold: motivate others with disabilities and eliminate any preconceptions among the general public.
"You're not the disability," Rabello says. "It's part of who you are."
And the public? "Keep an open mind," Nahavandi says. "Be open to what people are capable of before determining they're not capable."
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, "Doug Moe's Madison," on madisonmagazine.com.
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