There are so many devastating issues facing us today. The pandemic. Financial and job concerns. Climate change and devastating weather. Political unrest. Divisiveness and anger. It’s hard to find anything uplifting or positive. But after the Olympics and all its controversies, I started hearing about the Paralympic athletes. And although they too are not immune to controversy, just the premise is worth honoring since they are too often overshadowed by their Olympic cohorts.
Paralympics are a competition of athletes challenged by physical limitations. The first competition was held in 1952 when World War II veteran athletes with spinal cord injuries took part in a javelin event. By 1960, it had expanded to 31 civilians, both male and female, who participated in 25 medal events. Now it’s an amazing group of phenomenal men and women who have made clear they can aspire and accomplish anything they set their minds to do. From those who are physically impaired- using prosthetics, wheelchairs, vision guides- the Olympics shine a light on the spirit and heart of the human soul.
Jessica Long was born in Siberia, Russia and was adopted by American parents just months before she required both legs to be amputated below the knees due to rare condition she had at birth. In the pool she found freedom. With her astounding athletic successes- winning 13 Paralympic gold medals since 12 years old- she is an incredible inspiration to the world. Her desire and willingness to share her story has made a long lasting mark on all those who hear it. She has reinforced the premise we are only impeded by the limits we place on ourselves.
Ragnhild Myklebust was born in 1943. Unlike those of us today who are vaccinated against polio, she contracted the devastating disease. But it didn’t stop her from becoming queen of the Paralympic Games by winning the most medals to date. 22 were gold medal victories, and she did it all after the age of 40! She won medals in short, middle and long – distance cross country races, relays, biathlon’s and ice sledge racing. She has shown the world her physical issues didn’t stop her fierce determination to accomplish her goals.
Micheal Edgson’s visual impairments didn’t stop him from actively playing in sports such as soccer, hockey and gymnastics. But ultimately swimming was less impacted by his limitation. He won 18 gold medals in three Paralympic games from 1984-1992. He won every event but one he competed in. Loss of his eyesight never stopped him from seeing all he was capable of achieving.
Tatyana McFadden was adopted from a Russian orphanage by her mother – the commissioner of disabilities for the US Heath department. Paralyzed due to spina bifida, she has won 20 Paralympic medals in wheelchair racing from the 100 meter all the way to the 5000 meter races. Four consecutive years she completed a marathon grand slam, winning in Boston, New York, Chicago and London. She extended her skills to the 1 meter cross country ski sprint when she won silver in the 2014 Paralympic Games.
After Esther Vergeer lost the use of her legs due to vascular myelopathy, she learned to play basketball, volleyball and tennis in a wheelchair. She was number one in the world for wheelchair tennis from 1999 until she retired in 2014, winning 470 of her tennis matches. She won 7 Paralympic gold medals as well. In her entire career she won 700 singles matches losing only 25.
Annette Roozen had her right leg amputated due to an osteosarcoma in 1997, 4 years later, she attended a local sports day for prosthetic users. It was a day that changed her life. Amazed by not just the incredible prosthetics but athletes able to participate in sports she thought were no longer in her future, she trained tirelessly. Soon after she won her first international competition in the European championships for the 100 meter sprint as well as a bronze in the long jump. In the 2008 Paralympic Games she won the silver medal in the long jump.
Heather Erickson required a below the knee amputation when she was 9 because of a bone she had at birth that prevented her right leg from fully developing. Undaunted, she went on to become a sitting volleyball champion. A sports that requires players to keep their torsos on the floor at all times use their arms to move and must stay in a sitting position at all times. Participating in four Paralympic Games, she helped the U.S. team bring home 2 golds and 2 silvers.
Matt Stutzman is known as the armless archer. Born without arms, he still picked a sport usually defined by arms. He is the current world record holder for the longest, most accurate shot in archery- including among those with arms! He hit a target 930 feet away in 2015, using just his feet and shoulders he won a silver medal after participating in three Paralympic Games representing USA and multiple world championship medals in team and individual events.
No matter the trials, set backs or issues Paralympic athletes face, they all have one thing in common- they don’t see themselves as handicapped. Their only limitations are those they choose not to rise above. We can all learn from them.