It only takes one stare, one double take, one look-away, to remind Gabriel Weber there is something different about her.
Prior to her birth, Weber’s parents were informed she had Symbrachydactyly. It is rare condition that prevents one arm from fully growing in the womb and left Weber devoid of a left hand and forearm.
“Her dad and I grieved when we found out she would be born with a physical difference,” said Gayle English, Weber’s mother. “What will she not be able to do — ride a bike, wear a wedding ring?”
That question still applies today.
But with a different twist: What can’t Gabriel Weber do?
An avid photographer and musician, Weber plays on both the Parkway West field hockey and lacrosse teams — two sports that require holding a stick.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard (doubters) outright, but I think people are often surprised by my choices,” Weber said.
Weber has four sisters, one of whom played field hockey for Parkway West coach Dawn Callahan.
At a middle school event called “Get to Know West,” Callahan asked Gabriel Weber if she had any interest in playing. The next day, a field hockey stick appeared at Weber’s front door.
“Dawn really believed in me,” Weber said. “I thought that maybe I shouldn’t do it, but we talked through it and I didn’t have any doubts that I shouldn’t try it at least.”
Weber’s mother remembered the day her daughter told her she was considering playing a sport that required holding a stick.
“I was mitigating disappointment, trying to help her see that it may not be realistic,” English said. “But she is tenacious. I love that she wants to prove me wrong.”
Callahan contacted coaches, watched videos, and tinkered with modifications, eventually working with Weber after practices and on weekends.
“There are a lot of times you don’t even realize she’s playing without a hand,” Callahan said. “She’s a significant part of our team and her work ethic is just awesome.”
A senior, Weber serves as the unflappable presence in front of junior goalie Karen Trevor-Roberts, directing the defense and calmly moving the ball out of danger.
“I can always trust her with the ball. She knows what she’s doing and makes good passes,” Trevor-Roberts said. “She’s very determined and always very happy.”
For Weber, happiness was not always the norm.
Growing up, her frustration mounted as she struggled with what most would consider perfunctory tasks, like tying her shoes or putting her hair in a ponytail.
“I took a typing class in middle school where all we did was learn how to type,” Weber said. “It was miserable.”
As a child, she attended “hand camp” and learned valuable lessons, but not necessarily the ones intended for her to learn.
“I didn’t love it. I just felt like I could still do more, like I was being held back," Weber said. “A lot of (the campers) had a prosthetic and that’s just not want I wanted for myself.”
At the camp, Weber met a girl with one arm who played softball — sparking an interest in playing what she called “a two-handed sport.”
She also embraced the movie and book “Soul Surfer.” It's the story of Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm during a shark attack as a teenager.
In October, Weber will be attending "Beautifully Flawed," a retreat in California designed and run by Hamilton for girls with limb differences.
“I’m actually going to learn how to surf while I’m there,” Weber said. “I think my arm has given me some really good connections with people and I think it’s actually inspired some people, which is kind of crazy to think about.”
Weber has inspired both teammates and opponents alike.
“Players on the opposing team will say, ‘I think it’s so cool that you decided to play a sport with two hands' — and I enjoy that,' ” she said.
Opponents marvel at Weber's ability to get the job done.
"The amazing part is that when you're watching her you don't even notice (she's playing with one hand), because she's so skilled," MICDS coach Lynn Mittler said. "What she does and how she does it is so impressive."
According to Weber, playing sports has been an important factor in the development of her leadership and self-confidence.
At Parkway West, she is a member of Link Crew, an organization that helps freshmen become oriented to high school. She is also a member of "Women of West," a support group of girls that meets before school. Plus, Weber is a member of the National Art Honor Society.
And she continues to accomplish the seemingly impossible, recently learning to braid her own hair.
“I’ve adapted a lot in life, because it’s a two-handed world,” Weber said.
But every once in a while, an awkward stare or glance takes her back to her youth, when she grappled to cope with what she calls her “short arm.”
“As a kid, I really didn’t understand the staring and it made me really uncomfortable then," Weber said. "But I’ve grown into it and learned to appreciate my differences instead of resenting them."
In fact, her limb difference is currently the subject of her Advanced Placement photo portfolio and her college essay.
And if a curious child asks about it, she no longer feels self-conscious.
“Occasionally, I’ll throw in a shark story where I fell off a cruise ship or something,” Weber said. “It can be fun sometimes.”