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Paralympics: The untold story

For those who are feeling the void now that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games are over, the action will start all over again this week.

The coverage will not be as wide, and finding the action on television may be a bit of a challenge, but the 2008 Paralympics Games kick off on Monday, Sept. 8, promising all of the athletic prowess and intense competition along with a large dose of inspiration with athletes, who have surmounted challenges and obstacles to rise to the top level of competition.

"What makes the Paralympics so exciting is the same thing that makes the Olympics exciting — the realization of the impossible," said Parkite Chris Waddell, who is an active part of the Paralympics. "The victories are shared victories. We as human beings share in one person realizing greatness."

Waddell, a multi-time medalist in both the summer and winter Games, is in Beijing as an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) ambassador. According to Waddell, this means that he will entertain and inform dignitaries and honored guests at the Games.

"My function is to promote the Paralympics and give these people the ability to connect to the Games," he said.

Waddell will also get some air time doing commentary and hosting a studio program for http://www.paralympicsport.tv . Waddell was also an ambassador in Turin, Italy for the 2006 Winter Paralympics. The IPC chose Waddell because it needed a former athlete to promote the Games and from his promotional work as an athlete knew he was a prime candidate.

Another familiar name at the Games will be Allison Jones, a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team who will pursue Paralympic gold in the 50-meter, 3K, and 24K cycling races.

Back home, the excitement for the Paralympics is mounting. National Ability Center communication and events assistant Allie Schneider is ready for the games to begin.

"I love the Paralympics," she said. "At the Paralympics there are so many inspiring people who have a physical disability."

Schneider has spina bifida, which paralyzes her from the waist down. She is an avid swimmer and swam on her high school swim team with able bodied athletes. She said that she will be paying attention to all of the competition in Beijing in the next weeks. She said she was pretty much glued to the television set as Michael Phelps and the other U.S. swimmers made history in the Olympics and is especially anxious to see what happens in the water at the Paralympics.

Unfortunately, seeing all the action will take some creativity. The Paralympics can be viewed on the Internet, but finding competition on the air will be challenging. It’s something that frustrates Schneider and other disabled athletes who think that Paralympic competition is every bit as entertaining and captivating as the able-bodied Games.

"I’m on a constant tantrum," Schneider said. "I don’t understand why TV stations don’t think the Paralympics are something people would be interested in watching."

That sentiment is shared by others, including Shawn Wickard, who struggles with a rare autoimmune disease that limits the use of his legs. Wickard, who has tried just about every sport at the NAC, said the same thing. During the Winter Games in 2006, he rallied his friends to bombard NBC with letters urging them to broadcast some of the Paralympics.

"If anything needs to change with the disabled, it’s publicity and awareness," Wickard said."

Wickard met some elite-level American wheelchair basketball players during an ambassador mission to Thailand for the NAC and hopes to watch them play in the Paralympics on the internet.

The inspiration goes both ways. Wickard has been moved by the Paralympic movement. He is currently training to become an elite Nordic skier and hopes to attend the Paralympic Games in 2010 in Vancouver.

Steve Cook has already been there, done that. An amputee, he started his Paralympic career competing in cycling in 1996 and soon moved to the Winter Games, winning medal after medal in Nordic skiing. He also has his eye on coaching the American disabled Nordic team in Vancouver, so the opening of the Games this week is definitely on his mind. He, too, wishes for stronger coverage to let the world know what disabled athletes can do.

"I think that most people really don’t understand what disabled people do in their sports and how well they do their sports," he said. "It would be great for people to see that disabled athletes are as fast and competitive as able-bodied athletes. The level of competition would amaze people."

He also thinks that coverage would bring more sponsor money to the Games, which would in turn help the Paralympics become even stronger.

Waddell said that he had found many able-bodied people that enjoy the Paralympics over the Olympics and is quite sure that they would be receptive to more exposure.

"After Salt Lake, numerous people told me that they had attended the Olympics and Paralympics and if the Games returned they might go to the Olympics again, but there was no way that they’d miss the Paralympics," Waddell said. "The problem is that this group is too small. Too few people get a chance to see the Paralympics. The Paralympics on the Web is a nice step, but it’s unfortunate that it’s not on TV in the states."

The Sundance award-winning movie, Murderball, which Chronicles the 2004 Paralympic quad rugby team, already proved that disabled competition is compelling to people.

"Just to see what the athletes had to overcome to be their best is inspiring in itself," Cook said.

Cook added that the Games also promote learning and inspire the disabled, showing them what they can aspire to. He is already trying to recruit more athletes to his sport. Last week, he joined with the Wood River Adaptive Program from Ketchum, Idaho and the NAC to target athletes to become cross-country skiers. His camp at the NAC involved four days’ worth of off-season training eight hours a day. He hopes to see a regional development program grow from this camp and home athletes who will fill the disabled cross-country skiing roster for the Vancouver Games. The team has shrunk since Cook officially left the sport last year and he hopes to revive it.

"I thought it was important to keep the team alive, as well as I want to give back to the sport," Cook said.

Even with limited access, the Paralympics will begin this week giving thousands of disabled athletes from around the world the opportunity to show why they are the best. And that, said Waddell, is what makes it all worth it.

"The Paralympics are the second-largest sporting event of the year. It represents sport on the highest level," he said. "And the Paralympics represents the possibilities for people with disabilities."


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