Three U.S. Paralympians have won the opportunity to present a mentor with a golden memento of the Games. Alpine skiers Stephani Victor and Alana Nichols, both 2010 Paralympic Winter Games gold medalists, and wheelchair curler James Joseph have been named winners of the O.C. Tanner Inspiration Award by U.S. Olympic Team ring licensee O.C. Tanner, Salt Lake City, Utah. The award itself is in the form of a 14-karat gold commemorative ring that the winners may present to the mentor of their choice.
“Behind every Paralympic dream, there are family members, friends, coaches, and others who inspire and support our athletes,” Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the USOC, said. “These mentors have changed lives, and they deserve tremendous honor and celebration. We appreciate O.C. Tanner creating this award and giving our athletes such a meaningful way to recognize those who have helped them succeed.”
On the Facebook page dedicated to public voting for the athlete winners, the athletes posted tributes to the mentors to whom they would dedicate the award. Alana Nichols will present her ring to her grandmother, Joan Vilven, who raised her. Nichols wrote of Vilven, “Her encouragement and belief in me has brought me to this point-a summer and winter Paralympian, a hopeful and forward-thinking individual…. She was the first person I saw when I woke up in the ICU and was with me every day through my rehabilitation. And when this trial seemed too difficult and I didn’t believe in myself, Grandma was behind me. Literally. Pushing my wheelchair and telling me I would keep going. Two years after my accident I began playing wheelchair basketball, but couldn’t develop or join a team without moving to Arizona. It would have been my first time driving and living alone since my accident, and without hesitation my Grandma said, ‘Go. You can do this.'”
Victor will dedicate her award to her husband and coach, Marcel Kuonen. Kuonen gave Victor her first mono-ski lesson while head coach of the Park City Disabled Ski Team, and Victor recalled, “That day I fell in love-twice. I fell madly in love with skiing and even more with the person who was going to teach me how. Marcel promised that if I committed hard to training and followed his direction he would give me all the tools I would need to become a skiing champion. He did that and so much more. Marcel and I spent the next three years training 300 days per year on snow, traveling the globe in pursuit of our Paralympic dream…. Together we went into the 2006 Paralympic Games as husband and wife. I never felt a greater love or sense of team than with the man I adore and married. As a coach, Marcel leads by example and has taught me how to lose with grace and win with dignity. He has shown me that being confident does not make you a winner, but being of service is the greatest victory you will ever know.”
Joseph will dedicate his ring to his athletic mentor, Marc DePerno, who introduced Joseph to wheelchair basketball, racing, and curling more than 16 years after Joseph lost his legs in an accident. Joseph wrote, “They say a person’s true character is best demonstrated when they sacrifice their time and resources to help those in need…. Initially, Marc taught me how to play wheelchair basketball and secured a grant for me to receive my own sport wheelchair. He then assisted me with training for a local wheelchair road race and even managed to find a way to get me my own custom-fit racing wheelchair. He introduced me to kayaking and canoeing as well. But my most life-changing experience came when he introduced me to wheelchair curling. From the moment I threw my first stone in December 2004, I fell in love with the sport. Since that time, I have won six U.S. National Championships, represented the United States at four World Championships and two Paralympic Winter Games, and won a bronze medal at the 2008 World Championships. Throughout the entire process, Marc has been by my side serving as my mentor, my guide and my friend. The countless hours he has spent away from his family to develop the STARS program and assist me and dozens of others with disabilities speaks volumes to his character…. My life has changed 180 degrees, thanks to Marc’s intervention.”