Jen Bricker: Flipping the World Upside Down

Aerialist, acrobat, and motivational speaker Jen Bricker discusses her book, her dogged pursuit of her dreams and the surprising fashion in which she met her birth family.

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- Posted on Mar 17, 2017

Jen Bricker (right) with her sister, former Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu

In the April/May issue of Mysterious Ways, we told you the incredible story of world-renowned aerialist and acrobat Jen Bricker, who was born without legs and put up for adoption as a baby. Only as a teenager did she discover—through a miraculous series of events—that she already knew her birth family.

Contributing Editor Ginger Rue spoke to Jen about her bestselling book, Everything Is Possible, and the young woman’s inspiring journey to achieve her dreams and discover her surprising roots.

In your book, you give a lot of credit for your confidence and enthusiasm to the way your parents brought you up. Can you tell us about how they did it?

It wasn’t like they said, “Even though you don’t have legs, we’re going to raise you this way.” It wasn’t put that way; it was just how it was. I was Jen. I was strong. I was confident. That’s what they told me. That’s what they believed. And that’s just how it was. They didn’t see me as different, and it was just, period….it was just normal.

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Were your parents always open with you about the fact that you were adopted?

Yes. One day, when I was little, I asked, “Mommy, do you think my parents gave me up because I didn’t have legs?” And her answer made perfect sense to me and still does. She said, “Jennifer, Mommy’s tummy was broken, and God found you a really nice lady with a nice tummy so she could hold you until I could get to you.”

How did you become interested in gymnastics?

I started beginner classes in second grade. My mom talked to the teacher, and the teacher said, “Well, of course I’ve never had a student without legs, but I’ll try,” and she did. And we did all the work. I had a couple of coaches, and everyone worked really well together, and they were such champs and took it all in stride. We had such good collaboration.

And your passion for gymnastics led you to take an interest in the 1996 Olympics when you were eight years old?

We’d always watched the Olympics as a family. We loved it, all of us. And so the gymnastics competition was on television, so we were watching it, and everyone in my family was excited about it. I already loved gymnastics, so I was especially interested. But then when I saw Dominique Moceanu, it felt like a light bulb went off in my head. I was just drawn to her.

Since my parents had always been so open about my adoption, I already knew that I was Romanian, like Dominique. I had always been so proud of the fact that I was Romanian because I grew up in a town with very little diversity. I had a dark tan and big dark eyes, so I didn’t look like most people in my town...but I looked like this gymnast at the Olympics!

She was so tiny, and so am I. We both had that small frame. When I saw how alike we were, it was exciting to see someone who looked like me. I was really infatuated with her and excited that we looked alike. Also, she had the same fiery personality, and we both loved gymnastics.

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How did your mom figure out that Dominique was a lot more than just your role model?

Legally, my adoption was supposed to have been a closed adoption. I wasn’t supposed to know who my birth parents were. But God was working overtime. He made sure that the social worker made a clerical error and gave my parents all that information.

After seeing Dominique’s parents on television at the Olympics, my mom went back and looked at the adoption papers and looked at their last name and the fact that I had a sibling six years older.

How did you react when your mom finally told you—Dominique was your biological sister?

I was, like, “Wow! This is crazy! Full on crazy and amazing!” I asked my parents, “How did you guys keep it a secret? It must’ve been so hard for you!” I understood why she didn’t tell me right away. I was so young...I mean, what was I going to do with that at, like, eight years old? It wouldn’t have made any sense to me.

Also, Dominique went through public emancipation from our biological parents, so my parents knew that all the way around, for everybody, it wasn’t the right timing to tell me everything. My parents said that when I was growing up and would talk about Dominique and they knew she was my sister, they would just look at each other across the room and kind of shake their heads.

I respect them for keeping that information until I was ready to learn it because that was not easy, but in this instance, it was really the right thing to do. But when they told me, I went to Dominique’s website and discovered that I had a younger sister, too...Christina. And so I was, like, “Oh, my gosh! I have two sisters and I want them to know about me.”

Once you knew Dominique was your sister, how’d you proceed?

It wasn’t as easy as picking up a phone. It took four years and several failed attempts. My uncle Gary, a former private investigator, reached out to my biological parents. My biological father wasn’t very receptive, but he did admit that he and his wife gave up a child for adoption. But he made it clear he wanted to keep the secret and he wasn’t going to help me contact my biological sisters.

So I switched my game plan and planned to contact Dominique instead. My uncle tracked down Dominique’s address in Ohio for me. I wrote her a letter. I was very careful and methodical and put a lot of thought into what to say and how long the letter was going to be.

I just wanted Dominique and Christina to know I was serious and authentic, so I included the adoption papers in the letter so they could see the signatures of our biological parents, and I also sent pictures. I just wanted to cover all my bases. I was serious and just very direct, and just like, “You know, I found out, and I just want you to know that I’m legit, and here’s my number, and I’ll even take a DNA test.”

I kept the letter just over one page: I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too long. I included everything I had for proof in the package, so it was undeniable. 

How long did it take to hear back?

At the end of two weeks, I thought, “I’m going to have to prepare mentally for them not responding.” It felt like an eternity to get a letter back from Dominique, but she sent me a Christmas card with a letter inside. In the middle of the letter, Dominique had written, “You’re about to be an auntie!” She was finishing up college and getting ready to have her first baby. And the next day, she and Christina sent me flowers. It was amazing.

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In the letter you wrote Dominique, you didn’t mention not having legs. Why not?

I thought maybe that would be a bit much to find out at the same time she was learning she had a long-lost sister. When we talked on the phone after exchanging letters, I told her. I could tell she was trying to process and respond in an appropriate way. She said, “Oh, oh...wow, no, I really didn’t know that.” Then she asked when the three of us could meet.

Were you nervous about meeting your sisters in person?

When I sent the letter, I did think, “What if she and Christina reject me? What if they don’t want anything to do with me?” But after we’d exchanged letters and talked, I didn’t think she would reject me. I was, like, “Man, I wonder if she will think this is weird?” when I went out to meet her and Christina.

I was in Florida, and Christina was in Texas, and we were both flying in to Ohio where Dominique was. So I was flying to her, and I was the outsider coming in, and they were going to have to put my wheelchair in the car and all that. I just didn’t want that to be awkward for her.

I don’t know why I thought it would be, but it wasn’t at all. Instantly, from when we met, everything felt effortless. My not having legs was the last of anyone’s worries.

How is your relationship now with your sisters?

Of course, it’s an evolution, and it just keeps growing. It’s something where...you really have to work at a relationship. Domi and Christina had a rough childhood during which they learned to rely on each other. As a result, they’re always going to be closer, and I have to be okay with that.

I’ll admit I was a little jealous at first. They had inside jokes. They had memories. They were raised totally differently than I was raised. Then we came into each other’s lives as adults. For example, I was the baby of three brothers. I was the baby with my adoptive family, but with my biological sisters, I was the middle child.

So there’s a totally different dynamic in every single way, and they already had their own dynamic before I came into the picture. You just don’t know until you’re in it, and you have to work through it. You have to put in the time just like in any relationship. I’m traveling like a maniac, they both have kids, we are spread out across the U.S. It just takes work.

How do you feel about your biological father now?

When all three of us sisters met for the first time at Dominique’s home, our father, Dmitry, was still alive. But he died of cancer later that year. He knew the three of us were meeting, and I wondered how he felt about that. I was told that at the end of his life, he made amends with his whole family and even told my sisters he wanted to meet me. Unfortunately, he died before that ever happened.

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When they all found out about me, he was the first person to say, “I really want to meet her.” To me, that is so profound. I really just think, as crazy as it sounds, that we would’ve gotten along really well because by the time I would’ve met him, he would’ve been a different person. I think we would’ve gotten along.

It makes me smile, but I can’t help it—that’s how I feel. You can’t hold onto the past and something someone did twenty years ago, and obviously, I was supposed to be adopted, so let’s move on and not dwell on that. My parents set that tone when I was a kid: not having bitterness towards my biological family.

How are things with your biological mom?

I met her for the first time in 2009 at Dominique’s home in Ohio. I showed her videos of me performing with Britney Spears and pictures of my acrobatic and aerial routines. She was proud of all the great things happening in my life. She told me she knew she never could have given me any of them.

I sensed a great deal of sadness even when she smiled. No matter how much I assured her that I was fine, that my life was happy and I was healthy and everything was good, she couldn’t forgive herself. But she’s a woman of faith and that will get her through. She believes in God, and He’ll help her realize she’s not to blame and this was always part of His plan for me.

How has this whole experience of finding out about and connecting with your biological family changed you?

I think it’s a process; it’s not done. It’s a forever process. Experiencing a family that’s totally different than your own, you’re going to learn things. I just had never been around families that operated or thought so opposite of mine.

I was raised with a mindset of open doors, the more the merrier, and they were raised with closed doors, nobody comes in. So it was hard to understand them, and the same for them understanding me. So I think, coming from different ends of the spectrum, you’re going to experience new things.

How has all of this impacted your faith?

I think my faith grew more before I actually met my sisters, because it took a lot of trust for me to believe that I was going to meet them one day, and it took four years. So I had to have faith that one day it would actually happen. It taught me perseverance.

Having something take four years—especially I was younger and completely one hundred percent impatient—I mean, patience has never been a strong quality of mine! Now it’s like, OK, having something take years? I can deal with that. It makes more sense to me now that something can take years. Of course I still want things quickly, but I’ve been through this, so now I know how to be in something for the long haul.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been performing as an aerialist and acrobat for almost nine years, traveling the world, and also traveling the world as a speaker. My book made The New York Times bestseller list on October 1st, which was my birthday, so that was pretty amazing! I plan to do more books, and I’d also like to get into the beauty and health industry. Getting into beauty would be an untapped world for someone like me.

I’d like to be on the cover of magazines; I think that would be groundbreaking and powerful, and I think people are ready for it now. It’s been on my heart for several years but people weren’t ready before now. No one like me has been on the cover of fashion and beauty magazines, but I’m ready to shake things up and flip them upside down!

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Book cover for Everything Is PossibleJen Brooker is the bestselling author of Everything Is Possible: Finding the Faith and Courage to Follow Your Dreams, published by Baker Books, 2016.
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