To be an athlete at the Paralympic Games is a strange thing. You are there to compete in a sport; to do a task that you have spent countless hours practicing. I play wheelchair rugby. I have been in my rugby chair — perfecting the same push stroke, performing the same cuts, spins, and picks, passing and catching the same ball — upwards of 2,000 times over the past 10 years. I have arrived here in Rio de Janeiro, along with another 95 wheelchair rugby athletes, and roughly 4,300 other athletes, ready to do something that is as familiar as anything in this world. All the Hickory High clichés apply: The rugby court is still 94 feet long, there are still four players on the other team, and there are still four, eight-minute quarters, two penalty boxes, two referees, and one soft-touch rugby ball made by the Molten corporation of Hiroshima, Japan. In all quantifiable respects, I will be playing the exact same game that I have spent the bulk of my disabled life playing.
Yet this is the Paralympics.
As much as the actual game is the same, everything surrounding the game could not be more different. It starts before you even get to Rio. We go to processing in Houston, where we are outfitted with the kind of kit that makes you feel like a spoiled athlete. There are separate rooms where athletes are outfitted by Nike, Ralph Lauren, and Omega. You have personal assistants, custom tailors, men with Germanic accents who explain the machinations of luxury watches. At the Nike station, the mirror in your dressing room is electronically embossed with your name. It is all very surreal. At the end of the day you leave processing with loads of very nice, very expensive gear. You are made to feel like this is all normal, that you deserve it because you are an athlete representing the United States of America.
For anyone who has been involved in para-sport at any level, this is not at all normal. I’m used to playing in national championship games where the only spectators are the athletes who’ve already been eliminated. I’m used to being on a team, ranked number one in the world, where the only kit our budget allowed was two game jerseys and a T-shirt that one of our staff screen-printed in his spare time. Now we have a team of smart, well-paid professionals devoting significant mental and monetary resources to ensuring that we project the proper image of the United States (one of largesse, professionalism, and style) to the world. We smile, say thank you, and pretend that this actually is normal.
Like our kit, everything about the Paralympics is larger and shinier — on several orders of magnitude — than anything we otherwise experience. Take the village. Rather than booking a block of rooms at a team hotel, we’ve been given a city. A cluster of 18-story high-rises, 31 of them in all, defines one border of the village. The other is the dining hall (the largest tent that most-anyone has ever seen), the welcome center, and the transport mall. A road loops 1.6 miles around the complex, and a walking path wends its way through the middle of a communal park that bisects the village. There are stores, gardens, swimming pools, indoor and outdoor gyms,a recreation center, a post office, a salon, a dry cleaners, a wheelchair and prosthetic repair center, and one free and very busy McDonald’s.
The village itself looks much like you might imagine: functional, purposeful, if a bit sterile. There are 159 nations represented in the Paralympics, only 48 less than in the Olympics. In terms of housing, egalitarianism reigns. Each building appears identical, as with each floor, and each apartment within those floors. It looks rather like communist-bloc housing, if the USSR had survived until white tile floors, and glass balcony railings became a thing. The only areas for international envy within the village are the relative locations of the dining hall, and McDonald’s, respectively, to your building. We are a bit of a trek from the dining hall, and about as close as you can get to the McDonald’s. This is either coincidence, or the Brazilians’ idea of a joke.
The village itself offers some of the finest people-watching in the world. If this is your first Paralympics, the sheer cornucopia of disabilities is a bit overwhelming. You see things that you have never seen before. Little people riding little bicycles. A statuesque Polish woman with a unilateral below-the-knee amputation pushing a heavy-set Polish man with paraplegia over a ramp. An Italian with a motorized scooter wheel attached to the front of his wheelchair towing three more wheelchair-using Italians, all clad in Armani, through a throng of people. An 8-foot, 2-inch Iranian folded into a hospital chair, carrying a tray of rice and meat on his lap. The blind leading the blind.
This all comes as a bit of a shock at first. Even if you have been living for decades, or all your life, with a disability, you’ve never seen this many gimps in one place at one time. The strangeness of it makes you feel very normal. Strolling from point A to point B reveals that having a disability does not make me morally superior to the nondisabled person at the grocery store who stares at me as I reach for a carton of eggs. In the village I catch myself staring at people with disabilities all the time. I also catch myself thinking, “Oh man, I’m glad I don’t have what that guy has.” I’m quite sure that guy was thinking the same thing about me.
It takes some getting used to, this being disabled around so many other disabled people. As a wheelchair user, I’m used to people getting out of my way when I’m rolling down a busy sidewalk. If I’m rolling toward someone who can see me, they step sideways out of my way, I keep rolling straight, and we go on our respective ways. Here, I have to actually think about moving myself out of the way.
I’m glad that quad rugby isn’t at the beginning of the games. We have seven days before we start competition, plenty of time for the shock and awe to subside, and a sense of normalcy to set in.
Fantastic, With a Few Minor Inconveniences
In the lead-up to the games, most of the news regarding Rio had been negative: there’s no money, they haven’t sold any tickets, Zika!, etc. I read it all with a skeptical eye. The media tends to focus on the negative because it gets people talking, it makes people click a link. “They’re working really hard to do the best they can, and everything is probably going to be fine” isn’t much of a headline, but is much more accurate than the ones that had been popping up on my Facebook feed before we left. Zika turned out to be mostly a non-issue during the games. There were some serious issues with the Paralympic budget. Fortunately, last minute negotiations between the Rio organizing committee and the International Paralympic Committee had freed up enough funds to get all the teams to Rio, and the lights and the air conditioning running in the village.
For an athlete from the United States, the Paralympic experience has so far felt very similar to that of London (2012) and Beijing (2008). There have only been two noticeable differences. For one, there hasn’t been much variety of food in the dining hall. There’s a lot of it, and it’s been tasty, but it’s mostly the same thing day after day. After a week and a half, this gets pretty old. Second, as in the rest of South America, you have to put your toilet paper in the trash can instead of flushing it. Maybe headlines should have read: “Rio: overall fantastic, but with a few minor inconveniences!”
My biggest concern is with ticket sales. As of August, only some 15 percent of the available tickets to Paralympic events had been sold. We were going to be playing in a 13,000 seat arena — the largest that has ever hosted a wheelchair rugby match. I played in front of packed stadiums in London and Beijing. It’s a singular sporting experience that only happens at the Paralympics. It makes you feel like an athlete and a bit of a rock star. It also makes you feel like you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. Seven of the 12 players on our team have never been to a Paralympics before. It just wouldn’t be right, to make it all the way to the Paralympics, and not get to experience playing in front of a sold-out stadium.
Fortunately, once the Olympics ended, ticket sales picked up sharply. The day before we flew to Rio they broke a record for single day ticket sales, and our second day in country they broke it again. All of a sudden there is talk that certain events are selling out.
A few days into our stay, we want to get a feel for what the crowds and the venue are going to be like. One day, we take a bus down the road to the Olympic park — a cluster of venues not far from the village, hosting everything from wheelchair rugby, to wheelchair basketball, fencing, judo, goalball and boccia. The U.S. women’s basketball team is taking on China in a pool play game hosted at Carioca 1, the same arena at which we’ll be playing. We file off the bus, down the ramp, and into the back entrance to the venue. We don’t have tickets to the match, but we do have accreditation cards. We move like we’re supposed to be there, and volunteers escort us through the back halls of the arena, through a curtain, and suddenly we’re floor level next to the court. The arena is enormous. Stands rise level upon level. A giant screen hovers above the court displaying the game stats. The seats aren’t completely full, but there’s a large crowd for a random pool play game featuring two countries not named Brazil. We wheel to athlete seating, a low riser just off one edge of the court, and settle down to watch the game. It’s already into the second quarter and the U.S. is holding a 10-point lead.
The crowd is into the game, cheering scores and letting out collective sighs when a ball rims out, not quite falling in. During a quick break in play, the wave starts and is maintained for a full four or five revolutions. The atmosphere feels like we’re courtside at a professional basketball game. I look to the game and see fellow U.S. Paralympian Desiree Miller throwing an outlet pass to teammate Rose Hollerman. There are wheelchair athletes sprinting down that court. That’s the same court we’ll be playing on in just a few days. The thought sends a chill down my back. I look up to the crowd, the lights above the court, the television cameras, and take in the moment. I know that when we’re playing here, I’ll be too focused to really revel in the surroundings.
As we sit watching the game, people keep trickling down from the stands, bending over the rail and asking us to take selfies with them. Kids, adults, it doesn’t matter; everybody wants in on the fun. We smile, high-five, and take more pictures than we can count. When the game ends, there are so many fans who want pictures that it takes us 20 minutes to get off the court. All that worry about interest and ticket sales, and the Brazilians are embracing these games with a passion you’d be hard pressed to match anywhere in the world.
The Big Wait Before Showtime
Days at the Paralympics revolve around eating and training. We are only allotted one two-hour training block each day. Compared to a typical, three-a-day training camp, the schedule is downright luxurious. The hardest part about Paralympics isn’t the fine-tuning of strategy or reaching peak fitness and mental preparation. We’ve spent the last four years working on all of that. At this point, most everything associated with the game is almost automatic. As athletes, it’s what we do.
The hard part is filling up your newfound excess of free time without going crazy. I sleep 10 hours a night, trying to make up for a long summer of exhaustion. I sit for long periods of time in the dining hall, sipping coffee in the morning and watching the world go by. Chuck Aoki and I play a game: Most unlikely country you’ve seen to field a Paralympic team. The Seychelles and Lesotho take a firm lead. We decide that the only way to top those would be a Nauru or Tuvalu sighting.
In the apartment we spend hours sitting in a circle playing catch, bouncing a ball off one wall, or a wall and a ceiling. We call out names, and if the thrower misfires or the recipient can’t make the catch, one or the other is eliminated from the game. We have quadriplegia. The games don’t last very long.
You find ways to entertain yourself because if you’re not keeping yourself busy, you find yourself thinking constantly about the upcoming competition. You want to be prepared, but overthinking is a surefire way to ruin your performance. One of my flat-mates is of Polish descent. His distraction is to venture down to the recreation center to find other athletes to beat at chess. Most nights he seems almost disappointed at the ease with which he’s won.
I read, write, and Facetime with my wife at home. This all goes well for the first week or so. But at some point all this sitting around being cooped up in the village and barely practicing, rolling to the dining hall and back again, starts to get to you. People get irritable. People get snippy. Guys who normally hang out in big groups start to need some alone time. You feel like your nerves have a static charge. All you want to do is go strap into your rugby chair and beat the hell out of somebody, but you can’t even do that because you need to save this restless energy. As annoying as it is, this cooped up craziness you feel inside of you is a necessary part of your preparation. And just when you start to feel like you can’t stand it anymore, one morning you wake up and it’s time to start playing.
I sit up in bed and yell across to my roommate, “Lee, you know what day it is?”
“It’s game day, baby!” he yells back.
Four years of preparation and it’s finally time to do what we do.
The tournament went exactly as we could have hoped, right up until the final game. We took care of business against France and Sweden: started hot in both games, had some struggles we were able to work through, then closed both teams out without overworking any one player. We had a nail biter in our last pool play game — Japan came to win and they pushed us to the limit. We pulled out a 1-point win in overtime. It was intense, pressure-packed, and everyone rose to the occasion. It was the kind of game that makes a team better, stronger. In the semifinal we defeated Canada. We were the better team and we played like it.
Suddenly it was showtime, the gold medal game, United States vs. Australia. It was the kind of game that makes sports special: back and forth, intense, 13,000 screaming fans, and two teams showing why they’re the best in the world. Through four quarters, and then an overtime, we could not be separated — the lead changed hands again and again. Then, with 3.3 seconds left in the second overtime, we turned the ball over. It was over.
It’s difficult to explain to someone that you’re disappointed with a silver medal. People look at you like you’re an ungrateful brat. Do you know what people would give to have any medal? To even go to the Paralympics? I do know. I understand with all the logical parts of my brain. Indeed, there are six other wheelchair rugby teams who would trade places with us in a heartbeat. But directly after the gold medal final, all I feel is shattered.
To win a silver medal you have to lose a heartbreaking game. It was a game we had every opportunity to win, and Australia still took it. Am I proud to have won a silver medal? I sure am. I’m proud of my team, and everything about the process of getting there. But for the rest of my life I’ll think about what else we could have done to get that gold.