by Jody Kerzman | Photography: Photos by Jacy
When Karen Rychlik gave birth to her daughter Tessa in 1982, she had a feeling that her baby was different.
“I remember asking the doctor if she was albino,” recalls the Mandan, North Dakota mother. “But the doctor told me, ‘No. She’s just a good Scandinavian baby.’”
But at her one month checkup, Tessa’s doctor noticed what Karen had seen immediately. It was then, he told her parents that Tessa did indeed have albinism.
“I said, ‘So now what?’ And he handed me a medical dictionary with a very small paragraph about albinism. I wasn’t going to learn anything from that!” laughs Karen.
LEARNING & PREPARING
Karen took matters into her own hands, reading everything she could about albinism. She says Tessa was the first albino that doctors in the area had seen. That made her somewhat of an attraction in the medical community; there were dozens of tests to run, many of which Karen says now were probably not necessary. Tessa and her parents eventually went to the University of Minnesota to see a team of genetic specialists. It was there that Karen finally realized her daughter was going to be okay. It also helped prepare her for second daughter’s arrival.
Trista, born in 1983, also has albinism. The sisters share the same long, white hair and pale skin. They also share a vision impairment. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with albinism produce little or none of the pigment melanin. The type and amount of melanin your body produces determines the color of your skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin also plays a role in the development of optic nerves, so people with albinism have vision problems. The severeness of the vision problems varies from case to case. For example, Trista is legally blind. Tessa’s vision isn’t as bad, in fact, she even has her driver’s license.
The sisters say despite their vision problems, they never felt like they had a disability.
“We didn’t make the vision impairment an obstacle and we didn’t dwell on it,” says Karen.
“We knew we were different, but because people told us we were,” says Tessa. “But when I was a kid playing with my friends, I didn’t think about how I was different. We rode bike, and I was a cheerleader. Yes, I have a visual disability. But we learned early on not to let it affect us. We were taught to adapt.”
“It was beneficial having a sister with albinism,” adds Trista. “We were each other’s support. But the most amazing person in my life is my mom. She raised us to believe we could do anything we put our minds to, regardless of our disability. She always used to tell us that we are God’s true angels because we are all white.”
But, as happens often when kids are different, the sisters were teased.
“I had a broken heart a lot of times when they came home and talked about something that happened at school,” says Karen. “It was tough for them to have to experience that.”
STRONG BY EXPERIENCE
Trista remembers being bullied, not because of her vision, but because of her skin color and her weight.
“I was very overweight as a kid and I will never forget there was a boy who, whenever I came down the hallway, would say, ‘Look out! Albino rhino is coming!’ That was the first time I realized maybe I was overweight.”
After high school, Trista changed her eating habits and started exercising. She lost 60 pounds and has never looked back. She earned her associate degree from Bismarck State College and her massage degree from Williston State College. After college, she started taekwondo.
“My goal when I joined was to become a black belt. But I knew I had to get into shape first. So I joined a gym and started working out and realized, I liked this fitness thing.”
Trista is now a runner; she’s run half marathons, full marathons, and mud runs. She has traveled to South Korea twice for taekwondo training and has earned her third degree black belt. Her next goal is to compete in a bodybuilding competition.
“I’m not sure there are any albino bodybuilders out there,” says Trista. “Of course female bodybuilders are always tan. I’d be willing to do a spray tan if it meant I could compete. I’d like to see how funny I look with a tan!”
While she trains for her first competition, Trista is busy finishing up her bachelor’s degree in exercise science and running her own massage business, Trista’s Therapeutic Techniques.
“I always thought she would be great at massage,” says Karen. “Trista is a tactile person. When she was a kid, and we’d visit my sister, I’d always tell her not to touch things in my sister’s house. But Trista couldn’t help herself. She had to touch everything. That was how she saw it. She’s learned so much through her hands.”
Meantime, Tessa and her husband, Cory Monzelowsky, have two young children. Tessa runs an in-home daycare. Both Tessa and Trista are happy and radiate positivity.
“I was born with albinism. That wasn’t a choice of mine. I can either accept the fact that I have albinism and that my hair is white, my skin is white, and I have a visual disability, or I can hide behind it. I chose to accept it,” says Trista.
“I have always thought my girls were beautiful,” says Karen.
Beautiful and confident in their own skin, no matter the color.
Click here to see more photos of Trista, Tessa, and Karen by Photos by Jacy.