The Paralympic Games, the second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic Games, will take place this summer in London from August 29 through September 9. Over 4,200 athletes from 165 countries will come to take part, putting years of sweat and sacrifice on the line for a chance to be called “Paralympic Champion.”
Like never before, there is tremendous excitement about what the 2012 Paralympic Games are going to do — for London and for the world. In the words of one athlete, Hope Lewellen, who played on the bronze medal-winning 2004 U.S. sitting volleyball team: “This year will transform the world view of the Paralympics.”
These Games are expected to be the biggest ever. In just the four short years since the wildly successful Beijing Paralympic Games, there are 19 more countries who have entered teams this year, and 16 who are making their Paralympic debut.
The success of advance ticket sales is unprecedented, with the huge pre-sale of over a million Paralympic Games tickets as of late June. Because of Great Britain’s pioneering place in the history of the movement, it is not surprising that not only are the ticket sales through the roof, but that the broadcast rights holders will likely bring in excess of $15 million in revenue.
The Paralympic Games opening and closing ceremonies will be well worth attending in themselves. Themed around the idea of “Enlightenment,” the opening will feature over 3,000 performers who will “celebrate the inspirational spirit of the Paralympic movement, which challenges perceptions of human possibility.” Highlighting the closing ceremony will be one of the world’s top rock groups, Coldplay — winner of numerous Grammys, with over 55 million records sold worldwide, ensuring that the Games will end on a high note of celebration.
Evolution of an International Movement
The history of the Paralympics is a story of unprecedented growth and international cooperation. One thing that has fueled that growth has been the improved relationship between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee. The two organizations recently extended their cooperation agreement, ensuring that the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be hosted in the same city through 2020. Along with the IOC’s increased financial commitment to the IPC, representatives from the IPC now serve on several IOC commissions — athletes, medical, women and sport, press, sport and law, and radio and television, as well as the coordination commissions for the Games.
While the success of the Paralympics has much to do with organization and cooperation, the spectacle is still about elite athletes competing for the top prize. In the early years, the United States maintained a stronghold on the podium — from 1964 through 1996 — but in recent years the tides are turning. Other countries, like China, are investing significant resources into the development of their Paralympic athletes and programs. In fact, chief of U.S. Paralympics Charlie Huebner, as well as IPC President Philip Craven, both expect to see China garner the top medal count this summer.
Along with the growing international flavor of athletes, the number of Paralympic spectators has dramatically increased over the years. In the early years, opening ceremonies drew about 5,000 spectators. Compare that with the opening ceremonies in 2008, where a capacity crowd of around 90,000 witnessed the spectacular welcome that China gave the world.
The first Games, 1960 and 1964, were held in the same city as that year’s Olympic Games, but this hasn’t always been the case. The 1968 Olympic Games were in Mexico City, but the organizers reneged on their commitment to host the Paralympics. Instead, they went to Tel Aviv.
In 1984, although the Olympic Games were in Los Angeles, those organizers didn’t want the Paralympic Games, either. Originally slated to be held in Champaign, Ill., at the University of Illinois, a lack of commitment from the university and a lack of funding led Tim Nugent, then director of the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services, to pull the plug on hosting the Paralympic Games. Instead, they were split in two, with wheelchair athletes heading to Stoke Mandeville in London and all the rest competing in New York.
In spite of these early glitches, there have been many triumphant moments in the history of the Paralympic movement. For example, the Seoul 1988 Games were significant for many reasons — this was the first time the Olympics and Paralympics were held in the same specific venues; more than 3,000 athletes competed; 75,000 people attended opening ceremonies; and over 2,300 accredited media covered the Games.
The 1992 Barcelona Games were another watershed, with more than a million and a half people turning out to see the Games. And the 1996 Atlanta Games are widely regarded for attracting a whole new level of corporate interest in, and sponsorship of, the Paralympic Games.
The Sydney 2000 Games broke ground by showcasing Paralympic sport to a television audience of more than 300 million. When Athens hosted the Games in 2004, the number of TV viewers had increased to about 1.8 billion worldwide. Over 3,000 accredited media attended in Athens, responsible for over 600 hours of broadcast coverage.
Although each edition of the Games has improved some element of the Games, Beijing can take credit for improving the entire experience. The Paralympic Games of 2008 set the bar for spectacle, size, volunteers, and overall grandeur, where 3,951 athletes from 146 countries took part in 472 medal events in 20 sports in front of 3.4 million spectators and 3.8 billion TV viewers worldwide, along with 22 hours of coverage each day on China’s own CCTV network. If London’s games are half as good, they’ll be a smashing success.
The U.S. Role
The United States has been a leader in the development of the Paralympic movement over the years, with some of the development happening in tandem with what was going on at the Stoke-Mandeville Rehabilitation Hospital, through the mechanism of five different disability sports organizations.
Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA, BlazeSports America (which took over for the United States Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association), Disabled Sports USA, the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, and the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes were created from 1956 through 1996 to provide sports and recreation opportunities to their particular disability population — and to select the team that would represent each disability group on behalf of the USA at the Paralympic Games.
These organizations together sat on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “Committee on Sports for the Disabled,” providing policy recommendations on serving athletes with disabilities. They worked with Disabled Sports Services to provide elite athlete development and access to programs and services.
After a USOC reorganization in 2000-2001, the COSD and Disabled Sports Services were dissolved, and U.S. Paralympics was created to take over the role of developing elite Paralympic athletes. As a result, the disabled sport organizations refocused their energies on developing grassroots sports and recreation programming along with identifying athletes for the Paralympic pipeline.
Since that time, the USOC has increased its attention and focus on the Paralympic movement, increasing the budget for the division from $1.7 million in 2001 to $23.2 million today, and changing its mission statement to incorporate the Paralympics in 2003.
Charlie Huebner says that in the mid 1990s other countries started creating a significant investment in their Paralympic programs. “We are now playing catch-up to the rest of the world,” he says.
But the United States is working to close the gap and close it soon. While awareness of the Paralympics in the late 1990s hovered at around 5 percent in the United States, says Huebner, today, that awareness is at over 73 percent. This has enabled U.S. Paralympics to entice and attract sponsors, for both the team and for individual athletes.
“The Paralympic assets are unique,” says Huebner. “The Paralympic Sport Clubs, the veterans and military programs — all offer something different than the Olympic property for a sponsor. And,” he says, “we are seeing a significant activation from the sponsors this year.” For example, The Hartford ran a $75 million dollar ad campaign, and more than eight sponsors have included Paralympic athletes as ambassadors.
Additionally, with the huge numbers of combat-wounded soldiers returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas, more and more emphasis has been placed on Paralympic programming for wounded veterans and military. The Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded U.S. Paralympics over $15 million in the past two years, and the Department of Defense has also given significant funding for the Warrior Games and other Paralympic military programs.
The improved commitment from the USOC, the increased financial resources, and the attention to the veteran and military population seem to indicate that the United States is well on its way to reestablishing itself as a leader in the movement, although some of the athletes don’t think we’re quite there yet. However, the athletes do see the benefits they’ve gained through their participation.
U.S. Paralympians Speak Out
The Paralympic Games and participation in sports generally enables individuals with disabilities to become healthy, fit and strong, to improve self-esteem and self-confidence, to set and achieve goals, and to pursue education and careers. Also, outside of personal gains through participation in sport, Paralympic athletes have been able to start to reframe how society views disability.
Stephanie Wheeler, who played on two gold medal-winning wheelchair basketball teams, says, “Socially we have seen a reframing of disability, so now I believe athletes with disabilities are being seen in society as athletes first.”
Although Paralympians are being treated more as athletes and less as “inspirational” role models, many athletes think there is still a ways to go for Paralympians to receive truly equitable treatment from the USOC and other governing bodies. Cheri Blauwet, a leading competitor in wheelchair racing, does think that U.S. Paralympics has been helpful in opening up access to USOC programs and services to Paralympians, but she sees areas for improvement. Growing sponsorship and funding for Paralympians so that athletes can devote themselves full time to training is key, she says. “Many of our athletes continue to work their day jobs, even while in training at a very high level.”
Kevin Orr, another U.S. Paralympian and current coach of Team Canada’s wheelchair rugby program, says that Canada’s treatment of targeted podium performers, whether Olympic or Paralympic, is far better than what the United States provides its Paralympians. They receive equal financial support, full time coaching and other resources to enable them to train and compete full time. Most U.S. Paralympians aren’t supported at that level.
Anjali Forber-Pratt agrees with Orr. “In the United States, a Paralympian can’t make a living on just being an athlete,” she says. “It is frustrating to see athletes who have the potential to be a dominant force unable to pursue it because they can’t afford to.” Forber-Pratt is eligible for a stipend of $333.33 a month from the USOC. If she lived in the UK, she says, she’d be earning around £70,000 annually; in Canada, around $36,000. She and the other athletes are eligible for medal bonuses for Paralympic Games and World Championships, however.
The older Paralympians are more impressed with the current state of affairs, particularly when compared to how it used to be. Bert Burns, who first competed in 1992, remembers having to raise his own money and having tacky uniforms and gear. “Now we get the same gear as the Olympians,” he says. Ella Chafee, whose first competition was way back in 1964, was similarly impressed when she went through team processing for the 1996 Games, “I had never seen so many uniform pieces,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that was all for us!”
It wasn’t always such a love fest, though. Through the years there have been lawsuits filed by Paralympic athletes against the USOC, alleging discriminatory treatment in, among other things, funding, access to programs and services, and sponsorships and media. With the creation of U.S. Paralympics and the improvements in funding, sponsorship, and access to resources, however, future lawsuits from the current crop of Paralympians are pretty unlikely.
The Importance of Media Coverage
Media coverage has evolved over the years, too. “In the 1960s and 1970s, they might send press releases to your hometown paper,” says Hope Chafee. Fast-forward to London 2012, with the most extensive media package a Paralympic Games has ever seen. Broadcast rights holders around the world will bring in £10 million in revenue this year. As a result, the 2012 Paralympic Games will be seen in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, China, Iran, South Korea and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Much to the chagrin of U.S. athletes and fans, that coverage won’t include a U.S. broadcast. “If I hadn’t seen the Olympic wheelchair exhibition in 1984, I wouldn’t have known Paralympic sport existed,” says Kevin Orr. Candace Cable, who has a strong opinion about why this happens, says, “I don’t think the media is comfortable with adapted sport or disability in general.” Other Paralympians think the focus is too much on human interest rather than sport performance.
Bill Renje, who participated in wheelchair rugby in 2000 and 2004, isn’t so sure. “I think it’s a function of so many competing sports interests in the United States,” he says.
“That’s possible,” says Forber-Pratt. But she knows that at least some producers get it. Like those who put on the coverage of the last Winter X Games. “They showed mono-ski cross on ESPN with an educational overlay on the screen, a little bit about classification, how the mono-ski worked. They made it so simple.”
Charlie Huebner says the Olympic broadcast should not be the measuring stick for Paralympic coverage. The USOC paid to put the Paralympics on TV in 2002,” he says, and “no one watched it.”
Forber-Pratt disagrees. “You have to put it out there to get the ratings! And, if you’re going to air it at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re not going to get the viewers.”
Susan Katz says, “U.S. athletes think coverage is everywhere in other countries. But,” she says, “athletes in those countries feel much like we do in the United States — there’s not enough coverage, and people know very little about Paralympic sport.”
Chris Hamilton, the official photographer for the Atlanta and Sydney Paralympics, says the increased availability of digital cameras may be part of the problem. “Everyone’s taking pictures,” he says, “and they can share them easily, which gets exposure, but it also makes it harder for professionals to get hired, and harder to create that sustained awareness.”
Hope Lewellen laughs at the lack of exposure: “We need a sex scandal, then we’ll get attention! Or maybe we need a Paralympian to break into the nondisabled world.”
Like Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee sprinter whose goal is to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games? “If he wasn’t trying to make the Olympics,” says Lewellen, “no one would know about him.”
Can the Paralympics Change the World?
There is no doubt that the Paralympic Games are elite sporting competition. But do they also serve as a vehicle for social change? Most athletes say yes. Wheeler believes that the Games “debunk society’s myth that having a physical disability limits what you can achieve in life.”
British Paralympic Association chairman Tim Reddish sees the broader effect: “We recognize that the Paralympic movement and specifically the Paralympic brand can be a powerful agent for change,” he says.
Whether in the United States, Austria, or Africa, Paralympians believe in the power of Paralympic sport to effect social change. “Once the public sees what an athlete with a disability can do on the court, or the track, or in the pool, it changes how they frame and view disability,” says Wheeler.
Austrian handcyclist Christoph Etzlstorfer agrees. He says that the Paralympic Games let nondisabled people see that there are people with disabilities who can train hard, who can focus on a goal, and who are determined to achieve that goal.
Lango Sinkamba, the president of NPC Zambia, sees huge potential for social change. He has seen athletes treated with more respect after participating in Paralympic sport, and a reduction in disability discrimination and stigma. Plus, there have been policy changes encouraging people with disabilities to participate in sport and recreation in Zambia directly as a result of the country’s participation.
Cheri Blauwet points out that the Games have been a catalyst for change in the cities that have hosted them. For example, she says, “When we went to Athens, the Parthenon was made accessible for the very first time in history. In China, the same happened at the Great Wall. And, people with disabilities were out in public, not hidden away.” Now, she says, “China is leading the world in Paralympic sport, and Chinese people with disabilities are having greater opportunity for success in life.”
The impact the Paralympics have had on developing countries is evident. But the impact they’ve had in the United States is equally dramatic, if less visible. In the last couple of decades, community-level disability sports programs have popped up all over. With the advent of the Paralympic Sport Club network in the last 10 years, they have mushroomed.
And, with the increase in junior programming, more children with disabilities are participating in sports and advocating for sports opportunities in school alongside their nondisabled peers. Tatyana McFadden [see “On Track and On a Mission,” August 2011], for example, successfully sued her Maryland school district for the right to participate in track and field meets with her school peers. The Ohio High School Athletic Association recently became the latest of several states to recognize disability sports — adding eight wheelchair track and field events to the high school state championships beginning in 2013. And Mary Kate Callahan is following in McFadden’s footsteps, suing the Illinois High School Association to include events for athletes with disabilities in that state’s championships.
There has been an increased connection between the disability advocacy movement and the disability sport movement in the U.S. over the last decade as well. In years past, Paralympic athletes and advocates would not have mixed, and in fact, never did. Even formidable disability leaders like Marca Bristo of Access Living in Chicago couldn’t quite make the connection between a Paralympic jock and disability advocacy.
Over time, however, it has become clear that Paralympic athletes can have a tremendous effect on social issues that impact the broader disability population, in part because of their visibility, but also in part because of the confidence and skill they gain as a result of their participation in Paralympic sport. In time, Access Living and Bristo have come to understand the power of sport in advancing the rights of people with disabilities. In fact, Access Living has twice honored Paralympians at their annual gala for their contributions to the disability community — the cast of Murderball (the documentary about quad rugby), and Tatyana McFadden, who as mentioned previously, successfully sued her school district for the right to compete.
Social change is the true power of the Paralympic movement.
This summer in London, not only will fans see Paralympic imagery everywhere, they will meet and make friends with people from around the world and will likely experience sell-out crowds at most venues. And most of all, they will experience the phenomenon of realized potential that the Games represents. For all these reasons, Craven couldn’t be happier that the Games are coming home to London.
“These games are a celebration of [Sir Ludwig] Guttman’s legacy,” says Craven. As a result of the Games, many accessibility improvements have been made, some dating back decades. All the buses and black cabs in the city are accessible, along with many of the underground stations and even a path along the River Thames.
“People who live [in London] realize that accessibility improvements make it far more pleasant for everyone who lives there,” says Craven.
Two-time Paralympian Linda Mastandrea represented the United States seven times in international competition, winning 15 gold and five silver medals during her career as wheelchair track athlete. She set national, world and Paralympic records along the way. Her results included winning gold in the 200m and silver in the 100m at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, where she also set a world and Paralympic record in the 200m. Since retiring from racing in 2000, Mastandrea has had a law practice concentrating on disability issues, and is a motivational and educational speaker and freelance writer and frequent contributor to New Mobility.
Athletes to Watch at London 2012 Paralympics
Anjali Forber-Pratt, 28, Paralympic bronze medalist in wheelchair athletics, earned her Ph.D. in Human Resource Education from the University of Illinois this spring. Competing since the age of 5, she is ranked in the top three in the world in the 100, 200 and 400m sprints.
Josh Olson, 33, the first active duty soldier Paralympian — lost his right leg to an ambush in Iraq. He will compete in the R3 and R6 shooting divisions.
Catherine, “Cat” Bouwkamp, 16, is the top-ranked female wheelchair fencer in the US. Born with fibular hemimelia, she began competing in wheelchair fencing three years ago, and is a three-time World Cup medalist.
Jessica Galli, 28, is making her fourth Paralympic appearance on the U.S. track and field squad. She has a gold, four silvers and a bronze to her name in past Paralympic competitions, earning the most medals of any U.S. track and field athlete in Beijing.
Mallory Weggemann, 22, paralyzed from an epidural injection, currently holds 34 American and 15 world records, and is ranked number one in the world in 6 swimming events.
Tatyana McFadden, 24, adopted from a Russian orphanage as a young girl, will make her third Paralympic appearance this year. She hopes to improve upon the silver and bronze medals she earned in prior Games.
Jeff Fabry, right arm and leg amputee, is one of the top-ranked archers in the world — shooting a compound bow using his teeth. The three-time Paralympic bronze medalist makes his third appearance this year.
David Wagner, 38, the number-2-ranked quad in singles tennis, makes his third Paralympic Games appearance, after previously winning silver and bronze in singles and gold in doubles.
Paul Schulte, co-captain of the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team, helped guide the team to the podium numerous times, including the bronze at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games and gold at this year’s BT Paralympic World Cup.
Matt Scott, born with spina bifida, will make his third Paralympic appearance this year. A fixture in Paralympic sport promotion, Scott was first featured in a Nike ad in 2008 and is now sponsored by Ralph Lauren.
Alana Nichols is the first American woman with gold medals in both summer and winter Paralympic sports, with two gold and two silver from the 2010 winter Paralympics in alpine skiing, and gold from the 2008 summer Paralympics in wheelchair basketball.
Scott Hogsett will make his third Paralympic appearance this year as a member of the gold medal-winning quad rugby team. Hogsett, a C5-6 quad, was featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Murderball.
Will Groulx joins his third quad rugby Paralympic squad this year. A top performer, he led the United States in scoring in the gold medal victory in 2008 over Australia.
Oscar “Oz” Sanchez, 37, Beijing handcycling gold medalist and Marine Corps veteran, makes his second Paralympic appearance this year.
Hannah Cockroft, 19, of Great Britain, currently owns all the world records in the T34 athletics events, and set another world record during a test event at the Olympic Stadium this May.
Rose Hollermann, 16, will be the youngest member of the women’s wheelchair basketball squad. Since age 5, she has competed in wheelchair basketball and track and field, even competing at her state’s high school track meet.
Austin Hanson, 38, is the only American boccia player to qualify this year, and will make his third Paralympic appearance. He hopes to improve on his previous finishes — 5th in 1996 and 8th in 2004.
Jerome Singleton, 25, a right leg below-knee amputee, handed South African Oscar Pistorius his first defeat on the track in 7 years last year. He hopes to repeat his world championship performance and win the title of world’s fastest amputee this summer.
Oscar Pistorius, 25, of South Africa, is Singleton’s main rival. Pistorius aims to represent South Africa at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as regain the 100m title this summer.
Jessica Lewis, 19, of Bermuda, is the first Bermudian to qualify to compete in Paralympic track and field, and the 4th Bermuda Paralympian.
What the Athletes Say
On the Paralympic Experience:
Ann Cody: “The Paralympic Games sparked the development of disability sport around the world. It is breathtaking to think about how these Games have shaped our own lives and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities across the globe.”
Stephanie Wheeler: “I can’t even properly put into words how my involvement in the Paralympic movement has shaped everything about my life. Without sport, I don’t think that I would have the work ethic, confidence, and the humility that I have needed to live the life I dreamed for myself.”
Brad Parks: “I saw these guys as great athletes, not just guys in wheelchairs, and began to realize that someone could see me that way, too,” he says. “It inspired me at a low time in my life to keep going.”
Harouna Ousmane, Secretary General of the Niger NPC: “I see a lot more attention to accessibility and infrastructure improvements in my country as a result of the creation of the Paralympic organization there.”
Bert Burns: “Seeing the flag raised, hearing the anthem, I saw the last 10 years of my life. From the day I got home [from rehab] when I couldn’t push my chair a couple houses [down the sidewalk], to that day — fastest in the world!”
Susan Katz: “I get chills just thinking about it” [being on the gold medal podium with her teammates].
On Specific Games:
Paul Moran: “I will never forget watching the archer in Barcelona  releasing his flaming arrow from the field, lighting the torch atop the Olympic Stadium!”
Sir Philip Craven: “Barcelona was the first time spectators came in the hundreds of thousands,” he says, “and it made me realize that there was a real future.
Anjali Forber-Pratt: “In China  we tried to get a taxi, and the driver who stopped didn’t want to take us. We showed him how to take our chairs apart, and off we went. When we hailed a cab to go back to the village, the driver knew just what to do! We found out later that the cabbies had gotten a message over the radio explaining how to take the chairs apart!”
On What Needs Improving:
Christoph Etzlstorfer: “The elimination of many events for athletes with a severe disability, as well as the inclusion of expensive sports that only a few athletes can participate in, like equestrian and sailing, have all changed the Games, not necessarily for the better.”
Cheri Blauwet: “Many of our athletes continue to work day jobs, even while training at a very high level.”
Forber-Pratt: “It is frustrating to see athletes who have unrealized potential forced into early retirement because of a lack of resources. If I had the same ranking and times as I do, but lived in the UK, I could be earning £70,000. And, in Canada, I could earn at least a few thousand a month. Here, I am getting a few hundred dollars a month.”
Karin Korb: “I’d like to see Paralympic broadcast requirements rolled into Olympic broadcast contracts.”
On London 2012:
Matt Scott: “We came up short in Athens and Beijing, but we are returning with a new focus. I’m looking forward to making America proud!”
Sir Philip Craven: “So many people want to come to London this year for the Games, and I have to say, I’m pretty proud.”
Darlene Hunter, first-time wheelchair basketball Paralympian: “I’m excited to play. We have a very special team this year. We have 12 girls that can go on the floor at any time and play together. We know we have a huge target on our backs. We are ready!”
How the Paralympic Games Got Started
In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttman, intending on offering sport and recreation for purposes of rehabilitation to injured servicemen and women at the Stoke-Mandeville Rehabilitation Hospital, unwittingly opened the door to a global movement of sport and social change. The first competition, held the same summer as the last Olympic Games in London in 1948, saw 14 men and two women compete in archery. Because of Guttman’s reputation in the field of rehabilitation and neurosurgery, word of what he was doing with sport and rehabilitation spread around Europe, and four years later, 130 Dutch veterans joined the UK contingent, adding international flavor to the event.
After that, Guttman and Antonia Maglio, the director of the Spinal Center in Rome, began to hatch a plot to create the first truly international competition, with plans to host the Games in Rome when the Olympics landed there in 1960. In just 12 years from that first archery competition, the Games blossomed into what is widely considered the first Paralympic Games, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in eight sports just days after the close of the Rome Olympic Games.
With each successive Games, the number of athletes grew, the number of countries participating increased, and the number of events blossomed. From its humble beginnings, the Paralympic Games have morphed into a multi-sport, multi-disability elite competition for athletes who are spinal-cord injured, amputees, blind or visually impaired, who have cerebral palsy, or a myriad of other disabilities. Today, the Paralympic Games are no longer solely a vehicle for rehabilitation. They have become the world’s second largest sporting event.
The Changing Face of the Paralympics
Sister-in-laws Hope and Ella Chafee have experienced first-hand how Paralympic competition has changed over the years. Both were medalists as far back as 1964 and have participated in multiple events over the years.
Growing up in a time when there were few sports opportunities for women, disabled or not, neither thought about being an athlete. Physical therapist Chuck Elmer at the University of Illinois convinced them otherwise. He got them both into swimming, and from there, says Hope, “I tried everything they offered.”
Ella and Hope first competed internationally at the Tokyo Games in 1964. “We stayed in the Olympic village,” says Ella, “which was really forward thinking for the times. Accessibility was different then, too. If you could get in the door, that was accessible!”
Being pioneers in the early Paralympic movement was especially helpful in boosting self-esteem. “Playing sports gave me the attitude that I could do anything!” says Hope.
Ella concurs. “The trips we took gave us a lot of confidence.” Competitors weren’t as well-outfitted as today, though. They got one navy blazer they had to keep and wear year after year, and that was all. In 1968, competing in Israel, they wore the same blue blazers and competed in borrowed wheelchairs. Hope switched to archery in 1976, the first Games where amputee and blind athletes competed. “There was no feeling of being a team at all.” she says.
Twenty years later, Ella found herself back on the team, the oldest female on the 1996 U.S. delegation. Although she had been participating regularly in wheelchair basketball with the RIC Express (now RIC Chicago Sky), from the early 1980s on, and had continued to compete in track events at Wheelchair Sports USA regionals and nationals through the late 1980s, she had no aspirations of getting involved in the Paralympics again. Then, in 1995, a wheelchair fencing program started in Chicago, and Ella thought, “Hey I did this back in 1964. I wonder if I can do it again?” and gave it a try.
Before long, Ella found out she was pretty good at it, and “things snowballed from there.” She began attending competitions and moving up in the ranks, and before she knew it, she was invited to be a part of the Paralympic delegation.
She says the difference between the 1996 and 1964 Paralympics was like comparing night and day. “We got so many uniform pieces, it was overwhelming. And, at the hotel, we each got our own room — that was unheard of!”