In her shoes: Jessica Cox, the armless achiever

Natashya Gutierrez

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Jessica Coz is an armless pilot, taekwondo black belter and scuba diver among other things.

MANILA, Philippines — When Jessica Cox was a child, she taught herself how to tie her shoelaces.

But unlike most children, learning to do bunny ears wasn’t enough. Because unlike most children, Cox was born with no arms.

A precocious elementary schooler, she was determined to find a way to tie her shoelaces using only her toes, and put them on as well. Cox found a solution: she learned to loosely tie her shoelaces with her toes, loose enough for her to slip her feet in when the laces were tied, but tight enough for her shoes to stay on.

“The most important thing i learned from this lesson is the importance of thinking outside the shoe,” she says.

This line has become the 28-year-old’s life mantra.

Cox is vibrant, engaging and extremely driven. She has a black belt in Taekwondo, is a certified scuba diver, and is the first licensed pilot with no arms, precisely because she has trained herself to think outside the shoe.

“All the challenges in my life have been addressed through a perspective of creativity,” she says to an eager, intimate crowd of college students at the Escaler Hall in Ateneo De Manila University, Tuesday afternoon. “That is the key to how I’ve been able to do so much. There is always more than one way to do anything.”

Her creativity, she says, has helped her overcome various challenges she has faced in her life, from learning to buckle the four-point harness of her plane on her first day of flight school, to driving a car without any special modifications.

Desire, Persistence and Fearlessness

Cox, who makes her living as a motivational speaker, has traveled from Guatemala to Greece, Sri Lanka to Kenya, to share her story.

She emphasizes the importance of three things that have helped her tackle various obstacles in her life: desire, persistence and fearlessness.

“Whatever you choose to do and you have the desire to do, you can do,” she says. “And with desire we also have to be persistent…I think too often we use the excuse i can’t do something. It’s an excuse for not being persistent, it’s an excuse for easily giving up, and if we are persistent we won’t use those two words.”

She also encourages the young crowd to have an “unconquerable fearlessness.”

Born to a Filipino mother and an American father, Cox credits her parents for their undying support and never making her feel like a “victim of any handicap,” an attitude that, she says, has been crucial in her success. Growing up, she cites her mother as an example of the hardworking culture of Filipinos, something that she claims, has also inspired her.

For her part, Cox finds purpose in her circumstance, and has held fast to her faith, calling herself a spiritual person. She is proud and grateful for the chance to motivate others. “Sometimes, it takes someone to remind people that all of us… we have just as much potential,” she says.

And in inspiring others, she is successful as well.

Charlene Chan, a fourth year BS Management student from Ateneo, attempted to open a can of soda using only her toes — a challenge that Cox had earlier proposed to a volunteer from the crowd. From her seat in the auditorium, Chan took off her shoes and tirelessly tried to take the lid off a Sprite can.

“I took a look at the can and my first thought was never. I can’t do it,” she says. By the time the talk ended, Chan had succeeded in opening the can with just her feet.

Cox’s words on persistence, Chan says, stuck to her. “I can relate it to my academics. The main difference is attitude.”

As for Cox, the sky’s the limit for the beautiful achiever. She just learned how to surf, is set to marry her fiancé, and jokes about flying a commercial plane soon.

One thing she is holding off on, however, is driving in Manila — a decision she made after taking her car for a quick spin. She is waiting, she says, until she learns to be more aggressive. 

“If you can drive here, you can drive anywhere. It takes a lot of skill,” she says with a smile. 

Watch Jessica Cox in action:

Follow the reporter on Twitter: @natashya_g 

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.