SAN JOSE -- Doctors weren't sure if Josh Huang would survive a frightening bout with a rare illness as an infant. He survived, but there was still a cost. His life was changed forever because his left arm had to be amputated just below the elbow.
But what everyone else might see as a disability Huang came to view as an advantage. It became an unspoken motivation to prove he was just as capable as anyone else -- and maybe even more. The 17-year-old Lynbrook High School senior is heading for UC Berkeley in the fall and currently is a standout on the Vikings' badminton team.
"I've always seen myself as a normal person," Huang said. "This is just the way I am. I've had to find ways to adapt. My life has been about learning to meet challenges that I've been given in whatever creative ways I can."
That attitude is why Huang was one of the six athletes honored Wednesday with a REACH Youth Scholarship. Sponsored by the San Jose Sports Authority, which serves as the city's nonprofit athletic commission, the awards go to seniors who have overcome adversity to excel in sports and academics.
It's impossible to miss the obstacle that Huang has faced in his young life. He wears a prosthetic limb with a mechanical claw for grasping objects.
"The first time he came by an open-gym session, I kind of did a double-take," said Lynbrook co-coach Karen Christensen. "As I looked at him, I thought: 'Yeah, he really does only have one arm.' But it has never stopped him. He has been near or at the top of our lineup all four years because he's such a hard worker."
Huang, who has a gentle demeanor and quick smile, is not the least bit self-conscious talking about his lack of a left arm. Perhaps that's because he learned at an early age that people were curious and has often repeated the story about being diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease when he was about 5 months old.
The youngest of three children born to parents originally from China, Huang suffered from the rare, autoimmune ailment where blood vessels throughout the body become inflamed. The walls of his heart had hardened, and he suffered a heart attack while being treated at Stanford Hospital. Lack of blood flow in his arm led to the amputation. But it could have been much worse.
"We almost lost him," said his mother Sili Gao, a senior director at microchip company Nvidia. "There was a point where the doctors said that maybe we have to make a decision because he can't live on a breathing machine his whole life. But then he recovered."
Huang has no recollection of having two arms. This was just his life, and part of that meant being seen as different.
"When he was in elementary school, kids could be mean," Gao added. "He could be bullied, and kids would stare. But he just learned to be so positive and patiently explain why he was like this. I think the other kids learned to respect and accept him because he never hid this."
He also was fiercely independent. His mother says the only thing he never could do on his own was climb the playground monkey bars.
Raised in a sports family -- one sister ran at Cal and the other currently runs track and cross country at MIT -- Huang played basketball and volleyball. But badminton caught his attention while watching the 2008 Olympics, and he learned to play with his father, Laiqiang Huang. A three-year varsity player at Lynbrook, he now is part of the No. 1 mixed-doubles team.
Huang said badminton is perfect for him because you only need one arm. But his coach countered that it's not that simple.
"I'm sure he has balance issues," Christensen said. "He probably doesn't realize that because he has always been this way. But badminton players use their other arm for balance when hitting overhand shots. But he can't lift his artificial arm as much."
There also is a condition that can't be seen: Cardiac issues. Although medically cleared to play, Huang must take heart medication every day and can tire more easily than his competitors. But like everything in his life, Huang approaches badminton just a little differently.
"Because I can't run around as fast or hit the bird as hard as others, I have to compensate with really precise technique," said Huang, who hopes to play for the Cal Badminton Club. "If you can land a well-placed shot, that's always better than smashing the bird in the wrong place."
Growing up around hospitals and constantly repairing his prosthesis might even shape his career choice. He plans to study engineering or life sciences.
It's just another way that Huang has taken the focus away from the disability and turned it into something positive.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
The reach Youth scholarship
Stands for Recognizing Excellence, Adversity, Courage and Hard Work. This is the 17th year the San Jose Sports Authority, a nonprofit that serves as the city's athletic commission, has recognized local high school seniors who have overcome adversity to excel both in athletics and academics. This year the committee, led by former 49ers great Ronnie Lott and soccer star Brandi Chastain, chose six of the 28 nominees to receive $11,000 in scholarships.
This year's recipients:
Kristie Ann Handang, Eastside College Prep, volleyball: Found solace and a sense of freedom in volleyball that helped her past a difficult home life.
Josh Huang, Lynbrook High School, badminton: Had his left arm amputated below the elbow at six months after a bout with the autoimmune ailment Kawasaki Disease.
Jonathan Purcell, Bellarmine College Prep, golf: Overcame a brain tumor just prior to his 16th birthday.
Jose Rosales, Eastside College Prep, volleyball: Reconnected with a troubled father through a shared love of volleyball.
Kyle Roter, The Harker School, soccer/golf: Rebounded from surgery for Chiari Malformation, a structural defect in the part of the brain that controls balance, to return to golf and play goalkeeper for the soccer team.
Mikaela Sablan, Andrew Hill High School, basketball: Used the sport as therapy to overcome family challenges including the death of a beloved grandfather.