Paralympians: Heroes of the Games

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By Morgan Stanfield
The U.S. sled hockey team took gold and set an unbreakable record by not surrendering a single point to opponents. Photographs courtesy of Randy Richardson, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.

An anonymous wordsmith said, "Life isn't measured in the number of breaths we take, but in the moments that take our breath away." For some athletes, the winter Paralympic Games are two solid weeks of breathless moments—hearing 60,000 fans' applause under the firework-lit night of the Opening Ceremonies, powering a monoski over an ice-slick finish line at 70 miles per hour, or feeling the weight of a medal settle into the hand. However, the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games, held March 12-21 in Vancouver, Canada, were more than the pinnacle of athletes' labors—they were both the fruit and the root of tremendous cooperation among organizations, coaches, clinicians, sponsors, and volunteers that make it possible for athletes with disabilities to stand in the world's spotlight, while the athletes in turn draw people worldwide into the orbit of sports.

The Eyes of the World

In none of the four venues of the Games—two in Vancouver proper and two at the nearby Whistler ski resort—was there a dearth of attention on the athletes. Despite unseasonably drizzly weather, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) sold a record 85 percent of all available event seats for matches, and more than 25 television broadcasters provided daily coverage of events to more than 15 countries on four continents.

Team USA's Nikko Landeros (left) passes a puck out of a Japanese opponent's reach.

The event that drew the fiercest international attention, according to VANOC—and sprang the most dramatic upset—was sled hockey, which sold out the 7,000 seats of the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre rink for every match. Canada had its national eye set on home-team gold, and the public was looking forward to bone-crunching competition with Canada's arch-rival, Japan. However, in a series of hotly contested matches, Team USA surprised its host nation by not only claiming the top step on the medal podium but slamming a unique victory through the net of sled-hockey history—a full series of matches without a point scored against the team.

"We set a record that will never be broken," explains Josh Pauls, who at 17 is the youngest competitor on the gold-winning team. "Someone could tie it someday, but you really can't do much better than 100 percent shutouts."

According to sled hockey team leader Dan Brennan, even though Team USA entered the Games as world champions, they were as surprised by their triumph as anyone.

Five-time Paralympian Monte Meier slams downhill in one of the final races of his career.

"No one believes me when I say this," Brennan recalls, "but when we hired an all-new staff two years ago, we said that we were just too young of a team to think about a gold medal in Vancouver. But over the course of those two years, we went from the team that could barely complete two or three passes in practice to a top-notch crew." He notes that a great deal of the team's success was due to goaltender Steve Cash, whom he calls "as good a man as he is a goalie." Brennan adds, though, "We started out with a group that was very individually motivated. They didn't fully understand what it meant to be part of a team.... The average age of our players is 23, and they had to learn to protect [the information from] their locker room, and that they couldn't just relax on the days they weren't on the ice.... And now I've never been happier for 15 worthier guys. They played hard, they respected each other, and they brought 100 percent effort to every practice and every game they played in."

That commitment to teamwork, which can allow individuals to fulfill their highest potential, was integral to every aspect of the Vancouver experience. According to VANOC, for example, the builders and architects who developed Athlete's Village and Athlete's Gym partnered with accessibility experts, sports scientists, and interior designers to create the most supportive environment possible for the teams.

"It was just amazing the effort that they went through to give us everything we needed to succeed," Pauls says. "We had our own condos, newly built with everything you needed, with four people per condo. We got three suitcases worth of clothes.... The locker room was just fantastic. We had our own hand cycles to warm up on and rooms for our coaches. It was beyond what anybody could have expected."

Creating Paralympians

The Opening Ceremonies brought 60,000 fans, more than 500 athletes, and hundreds of volunteers and performers into Vancouver's BC Stadium.

Exceeding expectations seems to have become the business of being a Paralympian. In the Games' March 21 closing ceremonies, John Furlong, CEO of VANOC, told the more than 500 athletes who had competed, "Many of you will go home as champions; you all go home as winners.... You have been remarkable ambassadors of the human spirit." The ambassadorship of experienced athletes has long been a force in shaping the Games, and in shaping new athletes whose performances—and personal lives—have became far more compelling than they would have been without such examples.

Monte Meier, a member of the men's standing Alpine ski team, told The O&P EDGE that he was driven to become an elite skier because just months after losing a leg to an accident at age 14, he saw a member of the U.S. National Disabled Ski Team skiing and "was blown away by how effortlessly the guy was making his turns. I realized then and there how far I could go as a skier and that I wanted to make the U.S. ski team and be the best skier I could be." Meier is retiring from his skiing career this year, after having counted Vancouver as his fifth Paralympic Games.

Another prime example lies in the story of a 27-year-old force of nature named Alana Nichols who competed in Team USA's sit-ski division. She's one of the few Vancouver athletes who has medaled in a Summer Paralympics as well—she brought home gold as a wheelchair basketball player in Beijing. Nichols was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident at age 17 and says the experience left her isolated and bereft of self-identity.

"And then when I first heard about wheelchair basketball, I started to have hope," she says. She played with a group of men until she was asked to join a women's collegiate team. Then, Nichols says, "My whole world changed.... They showed me that I could have fun and be proud of who I am. It changed my health because I was actually working out and getting cardio again. Things were coming back to me, and I had goals and ambitions and aspirations."

The 52 members of Team USA parade through Opening Ceremonies. First-time competitor Heath Calhoun (center) bore the flag.

Two years before she began competing in monoskiing, she was watching the 2006 Turin Paralympics in her dorm room and recalls, "I remember vividly that I really wanted to be part of it. At that point I wasn't even skiing independently, so it was kind of a dream. Then last year when I started training and competing with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado, I realized that the Paralympics was kind of within my reach." Kind of. Just a year and a half after her first monoski race, Nichols went to Vancouver and pulled gold medals in the giant slalom and downhill Alpine events, silver in the super-G, and bronze in the super combined.

"Even before the Paralympic-level sports were part of my life, just getting to compete again absolutely changed my life," she adds. "I get to be someone that other young women and even young men with disabilities look up to, and I take a lot of pride in that. There are so many people with differences in the world who need to know that their difference is a good thing and doesn't have to hold them back. I don't know if I would have a master's degree right now, and I certainly wouldn't have three gold medals at this point if I didn't have this disability and hadn't walked through some of those doors that were opened for me after I broke my back."

Opening the Doors

Stories like these are common enough in the world of sport that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) has begun to work very hard to "open the doors" for many more athletes.

Two-time Paralympian Tyler Walker completes a fast giant slalom run on the Whistler Creekside course.

In 2004, the USOC changed its mission statement to include the work of the Paralympics and created a division tasked with building the Paralympic movement in the United States. For the first two years of its existence, the division worked to improve the existing elite national adaptive teams.

"We understood, though, that for us to be competitive at the Games long-term, there was a great need for community-based grassroots programs," explains Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics at the USOC. "The goals were, first, to get more kids with physical disabilities involved in sport with good coaching at the local level, and second, to extend the brand of the Paralympics."

Mike Mushett, USOC Paralympics director of community programs, says, "We're focused primarily on building the base of the athlete pipeline—the community programs—which are called Paralympic Sport Clubs. We partner with community agencies around the country and work with them to either create and implement sport programs for individuals with disabilities at the community level or develop existing programs. We partner with agencies such as parks and recreation departments, rehab facilities, and philanthropic entities to implement the programs. We provide tools and technical support and extend the Paralympic brand to them, and then they are operated and funded by local agencies."

The Paralympic sport club program has only been in operation for two years, but there are already about 115 Paralympic sport clubs across the country, some of which produced athletes such as Pauls who were on this year's team roster. U.S. Paralympics' goal is to have 250 of the clubs in place by the end of 2012.

"We recognize that everyone should have the opportunity to compete, whether it's recreationally, in local competition, or at elite levels," Mushett says. Huebner adds that these clubs can provide tremendous benefit even to people who will never consider elite competition. "Every day in our programs we see young men and women who have physical disabilities who are highly motivated, talking about college and careers, and are engaged and involved in their communities—you don't hear about that a lot when you talk about the disabled population. Although it's not our mission, we want to play an active role in ensuring that young men and women are not only successful on the field of play but also are successful in life."

Nichols says that the development of such clubs can only be positive for the Games. "It can only help in a huge way to develop our sport, and the more people we can get into each event, the more competitive it gets, and the higher the bar is raised for competition. That's so important, but also I think getting young boys and girls with disabilities legitimately involved in Paralympic sport at a young age could help them in a huge way—I'm a firsthand example of that."

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at