GENEVA, Ohio -- It was as beautiful a question as any young girl had ever asked.
Paige Kortman was maybe 3 or 4 years old at the time, and she was playing with her brothers when she noticed something different about herself. It wasn’t that she was a girl and they were boys -- that was another question for another day.
No, there was something else on her mind. She has a brother who is part African-American and part German and another who is Malaysian, Scottish and Polish, but the rest of her family … the rest of her family looks completely different.They’re Caucasian, and the question came tumbling out with no preamble, stated so simply and innocently. It was at once just like a million other spur-of-the-moment questions asked by a million other kids, yet so completely profound.
"Why did God paint me brown?"
Calvin and Julie Kortman have four children, and Paige and two of her three brothers were adopted. It did not seem to matter in the least that they were a kaleidoscope of a family.
“We taught our kids to see a person for the person they are, and not the color of their skin,” Julie Kortman said. “No matter what color you are, you have potential and you can do whatever you want to do.”
Paige knows that she was born in Muskegon, Mich., about 200 miles west of Wayne State University, where she’s now a star diver. She also has some information about her biological mother, and someday, she may follow up on it.
“I think one day I would be interested in actually going to connect with her and meeting her,” Paige Kortman said. “But there’s so much going on, it hasn’t really been like a priority at the moment. At some point, yes, I’d like to be able to meet her or try to reach out.”
The Kortmans are an extraordinary family, and not just because of their diverse ethnic makeup. When Paige was but a toddler, they lived and worked in an Albanian orphanage -- none of the children who lived there had ever seen an African-American child. Now, when each of the children turns 16, they’re taken on an overseas mission trip.
One brother went to Albania, another to Honduras. Paige went to South Africa during spring break in 2010, and worked in schools and in a daycare center taking care of children impacted in some way by AIDS.
It was a trip that changed her life.
“It was really eye opening,” Paige Kortman said. “It taught me that there are people out there who have it a lot worse than what we do. We actually are privileged with a lot of opportunities that plenty of other people would be dying to have, but never get the chance. It taught me a lot about being thankful for what I have, knowing that there are people who have it worse than I do but are still some of the happiest people you could ever meet.”While on that 16-day journey, Paige spoke to a class of students and she made an impression on them. That’s just a part of who the young woman is, and always has been, for that matter.
“She’s somebody that brings people together,” Julie Kortman said. “She’s been a really good mediator between friends and teammates growing up. She understands different angles for different people. We are extremely proud of her and couldn’t be happier for her that she’s finishing on a real strong note.”
At 3, Paige got the boot from her ballet class. She was the ringleader, the child who wanted to lead the rest of the class in turning somersaults when they were supposed to be doing something else. Next up was gymnastics lessons, and that stuck. She was a competitive gymnast from the age of around 7 to 13, and something obviously translated from gymnastics to diving.
“There was a connection, just because of the flips and the twists and stuff,” Paige Kortman said. “It’s all about body awareness. It kind of correlates a little bit. It’s just that in gymnastics, you land on your feet, but in diving, you land in water.”
Kortman won last year’s NCAA Division II national championship on the one-meter diving board and finished second on the three-meter. She followed that up with another second-place effort in the three-meter event Wednesday, posting a score of 486.45. Paige will go for her second consecutive national title on the one-meter diving board on Friday.
“Basically, I just want to try to go into it and do the best that I can possibly do,” said the senior kinesiology major. “If I’m able to get a title out of it, then that would be fantastic. Mainly, though, I just want to know that I’ve done all that I can do, and that I’ve given it my best effort. That’s basically what I’m looking for this week.”
Julie, a proud mother if ever there was one, wants her daughter to soak it all in -- the pun absolutely intended.
“We knew that she is athletically gifted,” Julie Kortman said. “That’s all genes … it has nothing to do with us.
“We always knew she could excel at whatever she put her mind to as far as athletics, and that translates into her life, too. We’re just so pleased for her. I just want her to enjoy every minute of this, her senior year.”