This year, for the first time ever, the Paralympics Opening Ceremony was televised in the United States on a major network. Viewers around the nation got their first glimpse at Team USA as the 80-member delegation — the largest U.S. Paralympic delegation ever — proudly entered Fisht Olympic Stadium. In addition to the 52 hours of coverage on NBC and NBCSP, stories about our athletes appeared in outlets ranging from Fox News to the New York Times.
Still, Paralympics coverage has a way to go, which is why the Wheelchair Sports Federation now sends volunteer media teams to Paralympics games when it can. “All the volunteers sacrificed their time and resources to go to a volatile part of the world to make sure athletes were treated to the coverage and exposure they deserved,” says John Hamre, president of the Wheelchair Sports Federation.
Most of the photos in this article and much of the writing is courtesy of the Federation’s all-volunteer media team. To learn more, visit www.wheelchairsportsfederation.org.
“Gold or Bust” was the mantra of the U.S. Sled Hockey team. They came to Sochi to defend the gold and left satisfied with a 1-0 victory over Russia in the final game. This was the first time Russia fielded a Paralympic sled hockey team, yet they beat the U.S. in an earlier game and only lost by one point in the final match. “They’re a fast and physical team,” U.S. defenseman Taylor Chace said about Russia to Wheelchair Sports Federation reporter Eric Gissendanner. “They come at you and you’ve got to be ready to respond. Our guys knew they had to match the physicality.”
Andrew Soule was 50 for 50 shots in the biathlon, which is a hybrid of cross-country skiing and rifling, but placed fifth, missing the medal podium by seconds.
An Army veteran, Soule lost both his legs above the knee after an IED blew up next to his Humvee while he was deployed in Afghanistan. He represents a new force in Team USA, as nearly a quarter of the Paralympians who competed in Sochi are veterans of the post-9/11 wars.
The Nordic skiing program, which the biathlon is part of, had five vets on its Paralympics team at Vancouver 2010, and they sent 18 to Sochi.
The Paralympics has a strong outreach to veterans. “But I think I would worry if our strategy was only targeting military athletes, and I feel really strongly that it’s not,” said John Farra, the U.S. Paralympics director of Nordic skiing, in the New York Times article, “Paralympics, at Peace While the Wars Wind Down.”
“Obviously, we don’t want more young men and women being hurt; that’s a given,” said Charlie Huebner, the United States Olympic Committee’s chief of Paralympics in that same article. “But every day, something traumatic happens, unfortunately, and we just want to make sure there’s programming available for when it does happen.”
Downhill skier Tyler Walker gave spectators a scare when he crashed during the men’s sitting downhill skiing competition. Walker, from Aspen, Colo., tumbled a few times, lay motionless on the snow and had to be airlifted out.
“I’m OK! I don’t remember crashing but I didn’t break anything,” posted Walker, 27, on his Facebook page. “Thanks so much for all the support, it means everything. I totally got a ride in a Russian helicopter, though!”
The first African-American man to make the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, Ralph Green represented Team USA at Torino 2006, Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. A high school quarterback originally from Brooklyn, Green lost his leg in a random shooting when he was 16 years old. He now lives in Vail, Colo., and competes in triathlons for cross-training.
Wheelchair curling is a fairly new Paralympic sport, introduced at the Torino 2006 games. It demands precision, strength and a steady hand, all the while perched on wheels that are parked on ice. This is one of the few sports where the teams include both men and women.
The idea is to push the stone as close as possible to the center of a series of concentric rings called “the house.” A player may use hands or a cue to push the 42-pound stone. Since wheelchair curling does not allow “sweeping” the ice, it is considered more technically difficult than nondisabled curling.
Spectators were given the chance outside the Curling Centre and inside the Shabaya Center to see what it was like to participate in the Sled Hockey and Wheelchair Curling competitions. This was a very popular spot to stop while spending time at the Olympic Park.
A small goal and sled were available for spectators to literally take a seat into the life of a sled hockey player and get a feel for shooting and just the balance needed alone. Also, participants were able to feel the stone’s weight as it slides along a mock ice sheet with ta gets like the house on a real sheet in the Curling Centre.
— Matthew Gephart, member of the Wheelchair Sports Federation all-volunteer media team
The Tetris-inspired closing ceremonies ended when Russian Paralympian Aleksey Chuvaashev, a bilateral amputee, climbed a rope and pulled down an apostrophe-shaped Tetris tile into the giant “Impossible,” changing it to “I’mPossible.”
A First-Hand Account of Access in Sochi
by Michael Dougherty
The experience of accessibility in Sochi, Russia, has been a surprisingly positive one. In particular, ramps here in Sochi are omnipresent. They’ve made traversing the sidewalks in town easy, to the degree that I am able to simply enjoy myself. There are more than enough vans with lifts and the service is quick and streamlined. The elevators work and the volunteers keep the wheels spinning around the clock. You can say a lot about Russia, but they figured out and executed this huge, ground-breaking endeavor with a great deal of precision and energy.
I don’t think this is a mistake, and it has to do with all these volunteers offering their time and space to us. That the volunteers are young people, mostly college age, means a great deal, even if it’s hard to articulate how.
The Russian government has made some abhorrent political decisions that show them as bullying rather than powerful. … Yet I think it’s appropriate to tip our hats to our host nation. It almost feels like we’re fitting in, and that’s saying something. So, if you see one of the volunteers in those must-have super-fabulous jackets exploding with all those gay (see: unironically happy) colors, give him or her a thumbs up when they point the way. While giving directions to the next event, they’re also pointing the way to the future.
Michael Dougherty has spina bifida and is a member of the Wheelchair Sports Federations’ all-volunteer media team that provided both articles and photos from the 2014 Winter Olympics. For more essays from Dougherty, visit www.wheelchairsportsfederation.org.