The world's best athletes with disabilities are headed to England for the 2012 Paralympics. Three Paralympians share their feelings about commitment and what representing the U.S. has meant to them.
September 6, 2008. Scott Winkler remembers that day.
“At first, I was hoping to medal,” the U.S. Army veteran says. “The more I thought about it, the more I said I didn’t care if I medaled—I was doing something most people couldn’t do. I got to serve my country again. First I fought for it, then I played for it.”
About 4,000 athletes from 148 countries gathered to take part in almost 500 events covering 20 sports at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. The 2012 Games are in London, August 29–September 9, and similar numbers of athletes and countries are expected in England to compete in sports such as wheelchair rugby, basketball, tennis, shooting, and track and field (athletics).
“That moment was the most exciting time in my entire life,” Winkler, 38, recalls. “Representing your country, wearing that flag on your chest, is an honor. I had tears in my eyes. I was so excited to be there. I never dreamed of days like that. It was so powerful being there.”
Winkler sustained a spinal-cord injury in a 2003 accident while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. As he marched in the parade of countries, fellow OIF veteran and shot putter Carlos A. Leon, 27, was nearby.
“I was filled with a sense of pride and patriotism,” Leon, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, says. “I’m no more American since I got to do that march than if I woke and went to the gym, or drank a cup of coffee. But, the feeling you get in your chest; it’s overwhelming.”
He adds, “I fought for our country with that flag. When I got to walk next to the flag bearer, it was too much.”
Leon, an incomplete quad, was injured in a 2005 accident—just weeks after returning from a tour in Iraq.
Patrick McDonald, 44, marched in the Opening Ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Shot-putter Scott Winkler fell just short of a medal with a fifth-place finish at the Beijing Paralympics.
“It was unbelievable,” the Army veteran remarks. “I was able to represent our country one more time in uniform, just like I did in the military. To walk out and hear the crowd cheer just as much for us as their home teams, it was amazing. It’s the spirit of the Paralympics. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from.”
The Paralympics is the world’s top competition for adaptive athletes, such as Winkler, Leon, and McDonald—people who demonstrate that athletic excellence isn’t limited to professional athletes with the benefits of big-dollar sponsors, expensive training and conditioning equipment and regimens, along with millions of adoring fans.
Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics at the U.S. Olympic Committee, says adaptive athletes show what’s possible when all a person has is grit and self-motivation.
“Paralympians inspire all Americans to excel and achieve,” he says. “They’re incredible ambassadors for our nation, and not just for people with disabilities.”
The International Paralympic Committee says people with disabilities have participated in adaptive sports since at least the 18th century. As catastrophic-injury survival rates dramatically increased during the 20th century, there was a growing need to develop and expand rehabilitation. Many credit Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s work with sports for rehabilitation at the National Spinal Injuries Centre, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in London, as the first significant move toward the Paralympics.
On July 29, 1948, as the Olympic Games opened in London, the Stoke Mandeville Games were founded. Sixteen athletes with spinal-cord injuries competed not far from their Olympic brethren.
The Stoke Mandeville Games evolved into the Paralympics, and return to London this year. Winkler and Leon plan to be there.
Winkler knows another trip to the Paralympics means balancing an extensive training program with family life. For Leon, it means holding off on romance for awhile to stay focused on training.
“When I got married, I had to learn to juggle the lifestyle of a professional athlete and a family man,” Winkler explains.
He’s parenting three children with his wife, Brandi—Hope, 18; Hudson, 10; and Tucker, 7. However, family life gives the Paralympian an advantage: built-in motivation.
“(Brandi’s) my wife, my coach and my PR,” remarks Winkler. He believes the long hours of grueling training will be worth it when he’s back in the Paralympics.
“At the Opening Ceremonies, I know I will be the same way I was in Beijing: excited and overwhelmed and probably crying again,” says Winkler. “When you get out there, it takes your breath away: ‘Oh my God, look where I’m at.’ All these people, and they’re all out to see you.”
Leon adds that Paralympians in London will know they earned spots on Team USA.
“If I put in my dedication, not only will I be on the team but I’ll also deserve to be on the team,” he says.
McDonald, who was injured in a 1990s service-vehicle rollover, aims to compete in his sport, wheelchair curling, at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I’m on the ice two to three times a week playing in matches, and I’m on the ice as least three days a week in practice,” he offers. “I handcycle and use training equipment. I’m working out pretty much every day.’
Like Winkler, McDonald balances family life with training. He says his wife Carri; daughter Andie, 12; and son Kaelan, 5, have been very accepting of his training sacrifices.
Huebner says that when Paralympians march at the opening ceremonies in London and Sochi, he’ll again be overwhelmed.
“It is incredible,” he says. “It is a moving experience. Just thinking about these athletes training four years for an event that might last 12 seconds. It’s a four-year commitment.”
For more information, visit london2012.com or usparalympics.org.
A Tradition is Born
What started as a play on words is serious competition these days. At first, “Paralympics” was a pun, a combination of “paraplegic” and “Olympics.” Today, it’s understood as “Parallel Olympics.”
“The Paralympics are new, in their infancy,” explains Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
According to the International Paralympic Committee, people with disabilities have developed and done adaptive sports since at least the 18th century. Some of today’s athletic traditions may have started with adaptive athletes. For example, many sports historians say that deaf football players at Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.) developed the huddle in the 1890s. Opposing deaf football players understood sign language, too. The team had to hide their hands when discussing plays.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s work with sports for rehabilitation at the National Spinal Injuries Centre, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in London, is often credited with helping start the Paralympics. The Stoke Mandeville Games were founded in 1948 when the Summer Olympics stopped in London. The Stoke Mandeville Games became international in 1952 when Dutch athletes joined them. In 1960, the International Stoke Mandeville Games were in Rome. The concept of Paralympics was firmly established.
It took another 16 years before the Winter Paralympic Games took place, in Sweden. In 1988, Paralympics went from being a pun to the official name of the growing international adaptive sports competition now sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. When the Olympics return to London this fall, Paralympians will compete in the same stadiums and on the same fields as their Olympic counterparts.
“The games continue to get more and more competitive,” says Huebner. “The awareness continues to grow both internationally and the United States.”
Sports at the 2012 London Paralympics
Athletics (track & field)
Cycling – Road
Cycling – Track
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