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The Olympic closing ceremonies have come and gone. The U.S. took away more than 100 medals. Allyson Felix, Simone Biles and Usain Bolt have packed their bags and headed home.
But wait—Rio is not done. The Paralympic Games kick off on Wed., Sept. 7, and run until Sun., Sept. 18. And there are more than a few athletes to keep your eye on.
Allysa Seeley from Arizona will be doing something you don’t see too many athletes do—doubling up on different sports. She’ll be setting up for both track and field and the very first paratriathlon. But she won’t be alone; in fact, she’ll have a very tough competitor at her side. Fellow Team USA member Grace Norman will be doubling up on those events as well.
Norman, who lives in Ohio, is missing her left foot from a congenital condition. Seeley lost her left leg below the knee from a complication of different conditions, one of which is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. But when asked if she thinks of herself as a disabled athlete, she emphatically answered no.
“People see the disability and not the individual,” Seeley explains. “When I’m out in public, people often ask what’s wrong with me. That shows the attitude that we’re a diagnosis and not a person.”
But the perception is starting to change. With the technology of prosthetics that labeled the now infamous Oscar Pistorius “The Blade Runner,” the advancement of the equipment has improved by leaps and bounds in a short span of time. And with members of our military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan needing prosthetics, as well as the devastating Boston Marathon bombings resulting in many amputees, there is more visibility and media coverage of prosthetic use.
But Seeley pointed out there is room for improvement. For the paratriathlete, the time taken to literally switch from a running leg to a biking leg makes a big difference in overall time. The prosthetics offer no ankle joints or toes to balance, and obviously two legs are more expensive than one.
“There are definitely areas to progress,” she said. “I’d like to see one leg for everything.”
Like Seeley, many of these athletes were fit and active long before an illness or an accident took their limbs. They didn’t let a disability stand in their way then, and they still don’t now. Certainly, there were more challenges along the way both physically and mentally, and every athlete—disabled or not—has those hurdles to overcome.
“Any athlete rising to an elite level has to overcome challenges,” said Seely. “You have to have the mindset ‘You can do it!'”
Melissa Stockwell, who will also be competing in the paratriathlon, agrees with Seely’s viewpoint. She had to push herself further than she ever thought she could. Formerly a competitive swimmer and a three-time Paratriathlon World Champion from Michigan, Stockwell has taken on more than just the pool. Her journey started as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Deployed to Iraq, she was the first woman soldier to lose her leg in 2004.
“I’ve done more with one leg than I ever did with two,” she says. “It gave me a strength I never knew I had.”
After competing as a swimmer in the Beijing Games in 2008, she joined the triathletes because she said she liked the variety it gave her. Since then, she has trained hard, gotten married, had a son and bounced back to join the Paralympic team.
Tatyana McFadden from Maryland has a fairy tale story of love. Born with spina bifida, a congenital condition of the spine paralyzing her from the waist down, McFadden spent the first six years of her life in an orphanage. Without a wheelchair, she learned to walk on her hands. The strength she built up in her upper body is now one of her biggest assets.
Once she was adopted and brought to the U.S., life changed forever. Her mom, Deborah McFadden, enrolled her in a series of different sports—basketball, sled hockey, gymnastics—to continue to build up her strength. Eventually, McFadden went on to wheelchair racing. She competed in Athens, Beijing, and London, winning silver and bronze medals along the way. In the IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon in 2013, she took six gold medals. She hopes to repeat that in Rio.
But McFadden has some fierce opposition on the track. Ranked as the best in their event, she and her sister are wheelchair racers together. Hannah McFadden originally started out swimming. But eventually she got sucked into racing. After being adopted from Albania with a congenital bone deformity resulting in amputation, Deborah used the same philosophy of getting her into a string of sports to keep up her strength.
In addition to athletes who compete with prosthetics or in a wheelchair, there are others who compete for other reasons. Kym Crosby was born with albinism, which greatly impairs her vision. Often referred to as “fearless” and the “one to watch” in this year’s games, this California girl will be taking on the 100- and 400-meter races. At 17 years old, Suzanne Arenal, who has cerebral palsy and started her own foundation CP in Motion, will also be heading for the track, in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, as one of the youngest members of Team USA.
The U.S. hopes for as high a medal count as we had a few weeks ago at the Olympic Games, and since Russia has lost their court appeal for doping charges, that hope is even higher. With all this talent, you’d think there wouldn’t be a seat left in the stadium, right? Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Even with all the hoopla, ticket sales are down with only about 12 percent attendance expected compared to the Olympic Games earlier this summer. Some of the athletes have even been buying up tickets themselves! Even if you can’t make it to Rio and fill a few seats, you can tune in, support the athletes and cheer from your living room.