Fifteen-year-old Francesca Cesarini was born with no hands and with only one leg. So her mother was more than a bit surprised when her daughter told her she wanted to be an acrobatic pole dancer.
“I don’t know if maybe I saw it on social media first, or I dreamt it, I don’t know. I just know that I [woke up and] went to her and I said that I wanted to do pole dance,” Cesarini says.
Three years later, in 2021, she competed in the International Pole Sports Federation’s virtual world pole and aerial championship.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, pole dancers from around the world submitted videos of their performances and were judged virtually. She was the only athlete to compete in the disability category and was awarded the gold medal.
Like many girls her age, Francesca wears braces on her teeth and a black plastic choker necklace. She likes to go to McDonald’s, sings the latest pop song while walking with her best friend, and loves all things Harry Potter.
But she chose an increasingly popular sport that anyone would find difficult.
“It makes me feel free,” she says in her family’s apartment near Perugia, where she practises at home and trains with her coach Elena Imbrogno in a local gym.
At a recent training session, as she hung upside down and twirled, Imbrogno told her to try it again but with her head just a bit straighter.
“There are some difficult elements [like] when you have to contort yourself or maybe you have to hold on with just an arm, a leg, or a foot. That’s the difficult thing,” she says.
She has one prosthetic leg, but when he she was about eight she decided to stop using artificial forearms because she found them inhibiting.
“She still doesn’t want them,” says her mother, Valeria Mencaroni.
“Francesca is a girl who knows what she wants. She wants to achieve certain goals,” says her father, Marco Cesarini. “Francesca is like this; this is it. She has never had that limb, or hands, and so she does everything with what she has.”
And, he might have added, she did it without any help from Harry Potter’s wand.
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