When Tessa Decker listened to the announcer proclaim finalists in the pole fitness competition at the Arnold Sports Festival, she didn’t hear her name in fifth, fourth, or third place, so she figured she placed lower—that is until the announcer declared her the winner.
“I was really surprised. It was my first time ever competing,” said Decker, 24. “I was really shocked.”
A lifelong dancer, Decker took the top spot out of 25 competitors in the Pole Fitness Level 2 contest during the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, in March. Named after famous body-builder-turned-California-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the event draws hundreds of thousands of spectators who watch more than 12,000 athletes compete in the areas of bodybuilding, strength sports, combat sports, and fitness sports.
During Decker’s routine, which she choreographed to the song “Climb” by Miley Cyrus, she performed a mixture of ballet, pole fitness, and aerial dance, moving from a stationary pole to floor work to a spinning pole. The two-and-a-half-minute performance required strength, technique, and deep knowledge of dance—and also held a special significance for Decker.
“I dedicated my performance to my late dance teacher,” she explained.
Decker’s achievement is all the more remarkable because she is living with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome (WAS). WAS is a rare primary immunodeficiency (PI) characterized by low platelets, bleeding, bruising, skin rashes, and infections. Doctors diagnosed Decker at age 8; two of her older brothers are also affected by WAS, though one received a curative bone marrow transplant from a non-affected brother.
Decker endured Epstein-Barr virus, E.coli, staph infections, and bronchitis until doctors finally prescribed immunoglobulin (Ig) replacement therapy for her at age 16. She missed most of her junior year of high school because of sickness, doctor appointments, and adjustment to Ig therapy, and ended up attending her senior year online.
All the while, though, Decker danced—ballet, tap, modern, and jazz. She performed in recitals, several “Nutcracker” productions, and three musicals at the historic Croswell Opera House in her hometown of Adrian, Michigan. She showed off her aerial skills in “Barnum,” performing a combination of dance and acrobatics while suspended from the ceiling on specially designed silk scarves, learned pole fitness for a role in “Rock of Ages,” and displayed her ballet talents in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I danced every day until I graduated high school, and then I joined a professional modern dance company in downtown Toledo,” said Decker.
When Decker became a mom to son Linken—now 2 years old—and simultaneously the pandemic unfolded, she stopped dancing with the company and shifted to teaching at a local studio.
Meanwhile, she has another project in the works—preparing an audition video for Cirque du Soleil, a performance troupe that combines dance, acrobatics, and stunts and has ongoing shows in Las Vegas, Disney Land, and Hawaii (set to debut in 2024).
Decker, who has attended IDF conferences since childhood, said she is used to navigating the steps necessary to treat her condition, and she won’t be deterred from pursuing what she loves to do.
“I deal with challenges as they come. I’m not going to let it stop me from living life, and I’m not going to live life on the edge, either. It’s a balance,” she said.