Towards the end of the summer of every fourth year, the Olympics is an event that I always look forward to. There is something special about hearing the stories of athletes from all over the world, who have overcome obstacles and put in countless hours of training so that they can fulfill a lifelong dream. The result is often determined in a few seconds, or maybe a matter of minutes. Were years of effort and sacrifice worth it? Most of the time, all you have to do is look at the faces of the athletes on the podium, waiting to receive their medals, to get the unequivocal answer to that question.
I am not unlike countless Americans, who feel the excitement and pride when one of “our” athletes rises to the challenge of competing and shows it who’s boss. When I witness amazing examples of courage and sportsmanship, like most other people, I cannot help but feel the satisfaction after the struggle or be moved by the emotion.
What sets me apart, just a little bit, is that when I see those athletes, I can identify. I was almost one of them.
No. I did not come by my disability by accident. I was never “able-bodied” and then not. Cerebral palsy has affected my life since I was born, and that means there have always been things that I cannot do for myself. It is true that I’ve never walked independently.
But I did race.
During my senior year in high school, I was one of the thirty-seven athletes from across the country selected to represent the USA in the International Games for the Disabled. They are now called the Paralympics, and every Olympic year, they are held in the same city as their Olympic counterpart.
I remember well all the emotion and energy that went into my training. Coaches who pushed and were persistent taught me that being a true athlete was about so much more than what I could physically accomplish. Machines built my muscles, motivation fueled my mind. Every ounce of blood, sweat and tears were accounted for as I made my way to competition. First regional, then national, and then what I really wanted to do; compete against the best athletes in the world.
I was in several events, but the 400 meter was my favorite. There is a sense of completeness that, for me, accompanied wheeling all the way around the track. In the months leading up to the competition, I shaved my best time to just five seconds slower than the world record for that year. My intention was to break it and take it home.
I was ready. I was confident. Then I was crushed. About six weeks before we were supposed to leave for training camp, the games were canceled because of the threat of terrorism. It was one of the largest disappointments of my life.
The Paralympics have been going on in London for the past few weeks, (by the way, please take a moment to watch this video. It is nothing short of what I call “kick ass inspirational”) This year, like always, my feelings are bittersweet. I am so thrilled for all the athletes with disabilities who were able to accomplish what they set out to do, and sort of sad for me because I missed out on doing the same. In that particular area of my life, I will probably always wonder what might have been.
What I find interesting is that several of my friends with disabilities on facebook have made comments about the coverage of the Paralympics by the media. People criticize because they feel that the Paralympic games deserve the same coverage as the Olympics. They argue that the athletes work just as hard, and therefore, should get the same attention. I see that point of view, but I have a different perspective.
In 1984, Levi’s jeans were the first company to have a wheelchair user in their commercial. The Americans with Disabilities Act came in 1990, and the fight for equal rights, equal treatment, and equal access continues on. There was some coverage of the games on cable this year, and to my knowledge, that is the first time that has happened.
Do the athletes who compete in the Paralympics deserve recognition? Absolutely! Are their accomplishments any less significant because they have disabilities? Not by a long shot. But, as in other areas in the life of a person with a disability, there are lots of things we have always deserved. Society is often just slower to catch up.
There has been more coverage of the Paralympic games this year than ever before. For now, that works. That is progress. And that is what I think matters.
Because sports taught me a long time ago that we don’t live in a perfect world.