New Opportunities

Reprinted from PN March 2011

U.S. athletes are looking forward to the addition of paracanoe at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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The International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC’s) decision to add paratriathlon (swimming, cycling, and distance racing) and paracanoe to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games has already spiked enthusiasm among athletes across the United States.

The 2009 and 2008 paracanoe world champion, Augusto “Goose” Perez, 38, a two-time U.S. Paralympian in wheelchair curling, hopes to take a shot at making the paracanoe team in 2016. The same goes for 27-year-old kayaker Rob Brown, a former competitive runner in high school and college before being wounded in Iraq while an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army.

“Getting paracanoe/kayak into the 2016 Paralympic Games is an important win for the sport and Paralympians around the world,” Brown says. “The importance of getting our sport added this time means we will be able to get a developmental team going, as well as a national/world team training on a full-time basis and ready for 2016.”

USA Triathlon Acting Chief Executive Officer Tim Yount believes the addition of paratriathlon will result in the number of paratriathletes quickly increasing.

“No question. Right now we’re a population in the U.S. of about 200 bodies, 200 people (paratriathletes),” Yount says. “We expect that number to triple in the next 12 to 18 months.”

IPC announced the addition of the sports during a meeting of its governing board on December 11, 2010, prior to the start of the Asian Para Games in Guangzhou, China. This increases the number of Summer Paralympic sports to 22. Nearly 4,000 athletes competed in the Beijing 2008 Games.

Triathlon was introduced into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and the addition of paratriathlon is a move triathlon officials have been working on for more than ten years.

“Countless athletes, individuals, administrators, and organizations have lifted up this sport in order to be ready for this historic moment,” USA Paratriathlon Committee Chairman Jon Beeson said in a statement.

Augusto Perez (left), shown here with Oksana Masters, hopes to make the 2016 Paralympic paracanoe team.

Joe Jacobi, USA Canoe/Kayak CEO and a 1992 Olympic gold medalist in whitewater canoe slalom, credited International Canoe Federation officials, among others, in getting paracanoe added.

“This is real exciting news for the sport of canoe/kayak and for the Paralympic movement, as well,” says Jacobi, who has been an NBC commentator for Olympic canoe events. “The addition of paratriathlon and paracanoe obviously draws attention to the water. That’s something we have in common with triathlon. Our athletes celebrate water; we celebrate athleticism on the water.”

Those athletes would include Perez, a Paralympian who lost his leg to cancer. He won an International Canoe Federation world title in sprint mixed doubles in 2009 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, but didn’t compete for the title in 2010 because he couldn‘t afford the trip to Europe for the competition.

“I sat back and basically saw my title walk away from me,” he says.

Now that paracanoe is an approved Paralympic sport, which will carry stipends and U.S. Olympic Committee training funds along with it, Perez would like to pursue a spot on the 2016 team while also continuing his curling for Team USA. Perez is also an ambassador for the USOC’s Team for Tomorrow program.

Brown says he will pursue a men’s LTA (legs, trunk, arms) slot in canoe in 2016.

“I know when the time comes, I will be ready to show the world the United States is a force to be reckoned with in this sport,” Brown says. “I will be standing on the podium when that time comes.”

Lure of theCompetition

For some athletes, 2016 may be too late. Paul Martin, a two-time Paralympian in cycling, has competed in paratriathlons since 1995 and holds an unofficial Ironman world record for leg ampu­tees. But in 2016, he’ll be 49. He doesn’t expect to be there as an athlete but would like to help out Team USA in other ways. He’s looking forward to seeing the sport become a reality even if he’s watching on the sidelines.

Sarah Reinertsen competed in the 1992 Paralympic Games. In 2005, she became the first woman on an artificial leg to complete the Hawaii Ironman; she will be 41 at the time of the 2016 Games.

The lure of competing on the world stage in Rio de Janeiro is expected to draw in some athletes not yet seen by national coaches.

“It is significant because people who have perhaps never been athletic, who are now missing a limb or are unable to compete in an able-bodied event, are now able to take on this opportunity,” Yount says. “It really could change some of these athletes’ lives forever now that we’re in the Games.”

Paracanoe is likely to see a number of athletes from the Team River Runner program, established in 2004 to help wounded military servicemembers recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It has grown into a large organization with 25 chapters spread across the country.

“What is particularly cool about canoeing coming on to the Paralympic program, this is so much more to us than just participation at the elite level of paracanoe,” Jacobi says.

Breaking it Down

The addition of paratriathlon and paracanoe to the Paralympic Games involves several disciplines in each sport, including singles and doubles sprints in paracanoe, and swimming, cycling, and distance races in paratriathlon. According to USA Triathlon, Paralympians compete in categories that account for different physical and visual disabilities: amputees, cerebral palsy/stroke/traumatic brain injury, spinal-cord injury, visually impaired, and “les autres,” which refers to any other conditions.

Twenty-seven countries currently have athletes participating in paratriathlon, Yount says. He expects that number to grow, perhaps doubling or tripling in size.

“As these different countries see the opportunity for them to generate medal counts as a part of the Paralympic Games, they see opportunities for new funding strings to be created, whether through federal agencies or private groups,” Yount says. “We even see that opportunity open, where major Fortune 100 companies that have invested a lot of dollars and a lot of time in this area are stepping up and working with us more cooperatively going forward.”

Paratriathlon has grown so much that paratriathletes now compete against able-bodied athletes. The same thing has happened in canoe, where paracanoe athletes compete alongside the U.S. sprint national team at the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships.

The benefits of being included in the Paralympic Games will likely go beyond medal counts. Those in­volved in canoeing and kayaking see broader implications as it reaches all people with physical disabilities.

“I do believe the addition of paracanoe/kayak to the roster will, in essence, serve as a doorway for more people with physical disabilities to pursue a more active lifestyle,” Brown says. “With the sport of canoe/kayak, individuals are able to get in a boat, get their heart rate up, and get a good workout without having to worry whether or not their legs have the ability to get them where they are going.”

“Canoe/kayak is a lifestyle sport,” says Jacobi, who has been involved in paddle sports since he was 8. “Once you finish competing at the highest level, in my opinion, you’re just beginning. Rivers and lakes and oceans and bays and creeks are there for the enjoyment of millions at just the recreational level. That has always been the heart and soul of paddle sports. We see it the exact same way for canoeing as a Paralympic sport, as well.”



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