Paralympic Athletes Travel Glory Road

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By Miki Fairley
Allison Jones- JOE KUSUMOTO PHOTOGRAPHY
Allison Jones- JOE KUSUMOTO PHOTOGRAPHY

The 2006 winter Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, began and ended in a blaze of glory. From March 10-19, participating athletes provided examples of hope, integrity, and courage that touched the world.

During the Opening Ceremony, an estimated 25,000 spectators watched as 11-year-old Silvia Battaglio, who is visually impaired, carried an arrow, guided by the sound of a bell, to champion archer Paola Fantato, who knocked down a wall from her wheelchair. From there, 498 athletes from more than 40 countries marched into the stadium to a huge ovation from the crowd.

After speeches opening the ninth Paralympic Winter Games, the ceremony continued with the lighting of a tripod which set fire to a huge cauldron in a fantasy of lights and colors. Helped by 1960 Rome Paralympic champion Arnoldo Ruschioni, young Silvia Battaglio set off the sparks. A waterfall of colored confetti and music launched the event.

The excitement continued over the succeeding days.

Medal Winners

The Russian Federation swept the Games with 13 gold medals, 13 silver, and seven bronze, for a total of 33. Next in total of gold medals was Germany, with eight, along with five silver and five bronze.

Stephani Victor- JOE KUSUMOTO PHOTOGRAPHY
Stephani Victor- JOE KUSUMOTO PHOTOGRAPHY

Although Ukraine was second in number of medals, with 25, Germany was ranked as second overall, since it captured the second largest number of golds.

The United States ranked fifth, behind fourth-place France, with Canada ranking sixth. The US captured seven gold medals, two silver, and six bronze; Canada garnered five gold medals, three silver, and five bronze.

Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) grantees shone during the Games. Laurie Stephens, Wentam, Massachusetts, captured gold in the Sitting Downhill and Super G races and silver in the Sitting Giant Slalom. Allison Jones, Colorado Springs, Colorado, won the gold in the Sitting Slalom event; teammate Sandy Dukat, Vail, Colorado, took home a bronze in the Standing Slalom.

Stephani Victor, Park City, Utah, lived up to her name as she swept a gold medal in the Sitting Slalom. As an interesting sidelight, Victor at first thought she was the second-place winner and congratulated the woman she thought was the gold-medal winner. Then, according to a story in The Salt Lake Tribune March 20, teammate Lacey Heward of Boise, Idaho, who finished fourth, told Victor she had won-the scoreboard initially had been wrong!

Kevin Bramble, Truckee, California, garnered the gold in the Sitting Downhill race, and Chris Devlin-Young, Campton, New Hampshire, swept the silver in the same event.

Sled Hockey veteran Dave Conklin was a key member of the US Sled Hockey Team that took bronze in what the CAF described as "some of the fiercest competition witnessed at the Torino games." Canada defeated Norway to gain the gold.

Other US medalists were Steve Cook, Salt Lake City, Utah, who ended a 14-year drought for the US in Nordic competition, winning the men's 5km Standing Race. Cook captured his second gold medal by winning the men's 10km Standing Race, along with a bronze in the men's 20km Long Distance Race.

A Canadian star was cross-country skier Brian McKeever, Canmore, Alberta, who along with his brother and guide, Robin, won almost a quarter of Canada's 13 medals, finishing with two gold, a silver, and a bronze.

Canada also swept the gold in the first-ever Paralympic Wheelchair Curling competition, defeating Great Britain 7-4.

Legendary German skier Gerd Schoenfelder and Ukrainian "Iron Girl" Olena Iurskovska were the top medal winners. Both won three gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. Shoenfelder holds the record for the most Paralympic medals won. During five Winter Paralympic Games, he has swept a total of 21-16 gold, three silver, and two bronze.

Another notable feature is that the 2006 Paralympics were free from the doping scandals which have marred the Olympics.

Although these elite athletes have conquered a bigger foe-their disabilities-on their way to achieving their dreams, their competitive drive is as strong as that of any athlete. Said US alpine skier George Sansonetis, quoted in an article by Tracey Denton at www.dfnyc.org , "We're all friends here in the Village. And we're friends on the hill. But once you're in the starting gate, you don't have any friends. Because who wants to beat their friends? Then once we cross the finish line, we're all friends again."

'Paralympic Spirit' Awards Honor Athletes

However, despite the normal competitive spirit among athletes, another spirit lives during the Paralympics. Giving recognition to this spirit is the US Paralympic Spirit Award Delivered by DHL. The US Olympic Committee joined with DHL to announce winners Andy Parr, Danell Libby, and the US Paralympic Sled Hockey Team.

Winners were selected by American fans, fellow Team USA athletes, US Paralympic alumni, and participating members of the media for best representing "Olympic Spirit" during the Games. According to the US Olympic Committee and DHL, athletes were selected based on their demonstration of such "Olympic values" as courage, commitment, perseverance, and vision, both in competition and in pursuit of their Paralympic dream.

Male Category winner Andy Parr, Rockland, Maine, had dreamed of becoming a pilot but began to lose his vision as a teenager due to macular degeneration. Parr was the only legally blind US athlete competing at Torino. Parr channeled his energy into skiing success, and in Salt Lake City in 2002 he captured the Paralympic bronze medal in alpine skiing. Although Parr finished eighth in his event at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, his enthusiasm and competitive spirit inspired both teammates and fans alike.

Female Category winner Danell Libby, Chatham, New York, first competed in curling in 2002 and went on to compete with the US Wheelchair Curling Team in Switzerland, where she and her teammates finished fifth in the World Championships. At this year's Paralympic Winter Games, Libby was the sole female on the first US Wheelchair Curling Team to compete at the Paralympics. Team USA tied for seventh in the round-robin standings.

Team winner, the US Sled Hockey Team, was honored because, as the Olympic Committee stated, "The entire team continually demonstrated incredible passion for the sport and camaraderie among teammates and competitors. Additionally, sled hockey athlete Lonnie Hannah (Mansfield, Texas), who recently beat cancer, was selected as the flag-bearer to represent the United States at the Closing Ceremony..." The team beat Germany by one point to capture the bronze medal.

"In 2000, the United States Olympic Committee introduced the US Paralympic Spirit Award, honoring those athletes who have inspired our country through their commitment to the Olympic Ideals," said Joe Walsh, managing director of US Paralympics. "Through the support of DHL, we are proud to recognize the athletes from this year's Games for their pursuit of their Paralympic dreams and congratulate them for their excellence, both on and off the field of play."

"The personal challenges faced, and conquered, by each of these incredible athletes is one that resonated with fans, teammates, and the media for best encompassing what the Paralympic Spirit represents," said Karen Jones, DHL vice president of brand, advertising, and promotions. "DHL is honored to recognize these athletes for overcoming adversity and for serving as a role model to those who face personal challenges every day in their own lives."

The winners will be honored at a US Olympic and Paralympic Team celebration dinner on May 16 in Washington DC. In addition, DHL will provide a grant of $5,000 on behalf of each of the winners to a qualified Paralympic-related nonprofit organization of their choice.

TV Coverage Circles Globe

The Paralympic Games were an unprecedented success in terms of television audience. For the first time, image rights were bought on all five continents, including Africa. Some media outlets offered simultaneous live coverage on the Internet as well. There were more than 140 hours broadcast from the Torino 2006 Winter Paralympics, including 130 hours live, the Paralympics website noted ( www.paralympic.org ).

Vancouver Awaits in 2010

The site of the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games will be Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, who is himself a paraplegic, received the Paralympic flag in a specially designed holster attached to his wheelchair during the Closing Ceremony. The ceremony featured fireworks and a performance by rocker and poet Patti Smith, one of about 300 performers who joined athletes for a show centered around the transition from winter to spring. Singer Jim Byrnes from Vancouver, who lost his legs in a car accident, sang his song, "Of Whom Will I Be Afraid?"

And in a warm moment of glory, the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games ended.

Arrivederci, Torino-hello, Vancouver!