A few weeks ago hundreds of Americans with disabilities returned from Torino with the pride of representing our country in the 2006 Torino Paralympic Games. Some returned with medals, hardware to show their awaiting friends and families.
For others, their memories are equally as tangible, but in the shape of their experiences on the world stage as they finally did what they had trained so hard to do.
Among these Paralympians, is a unified team, both on and off the ice. The USA Sled Hockey Team returned with a bronze medal from the Games and speaking to the members makes it clear that the opportunity to compete as a Paralympian is summarized by much more than a final score, game stats, or a medal count.
The individual members of the US Sled Hockey Team began their preparations in different corners of the country and at many different times. Some were training before their future teammates were even disabled. James Connelly, from Galloway, New Jersey, got started in the sport after hearing about it during his rehabilitation from back surgery.
For several of the members, it only took trying the sport once to be hooked on the game. Steven Cash, from Overland, Missouri, was recruited to join a team after someone spotted him playing roller hockey.
Family plays a strong role in these athletes’ discovery of the sport as well. Brad Emmerson, from Amherst, New York, had watched his brother play hockey for years before he jumped on the offer to try out for a junior team in the area.
As their level of skill increased over the years, their workouts also ramped up in the amount of time spent training on and off the ice. During peak training, the team members skate for two and half hours a day with an additional hour or two spent on exercise off the ice.
All of this training definitely paid off as the culmination of many of the players’ Paralympic experience resulted in the medal ceremony.
It’s difficult for Americans to share in even this piece of the Games from our country as the United States does not yet broadcast the Paralympics. Even during the Olympics, however, many Americans mistake that moment to symbolize the bulk of the experience.
For most, the culmination of the Games goes deeper than the bellowing of the national anthem and the bowing of heads to receive hard-earned medals. Few people know the unique atmosphere in which the Paralympians live while staying in the Village before and after their competition.
In recent years, several Olympians have made their decision to stay outside of the Village very public.
In response to the question of whether the Village meets the needs of a Paralympic team preparing for one of the most important competitions of their lives, the US Sled Hockey team definitely felt like the opportunity to be together was far more important than the extra amenities they may have received in another location.
Not only did the athletes have the chance to catch up with competitors from other countries, but their bond as a team grew even stronger. Connelly describes the importance of cohabitation because, “Relationships carry on and off the playing field and your attitude will reflect that.”
It’s very clear that the bond shared by members of Team USA is one of strength and intimacy. This unique bond in itself may have been a large contributor to the team’s success in Torino. Brad Emmerson cites one of his role models as assistant captain, Lonnie Hannah. Emmerson adds, “He has helped me grow into the player I am today.” James Connelly also makes a similar remark about his teammate, Michael Hallman, “I push him and he pushes me.”
Steven Cash summarizes this team’s bond with what kept him going during the competition, “I thought of that team as family, and that’s what kept me striving to do my best, because they were my inspiration.”
The sincere reflection of these athletes on their team as an inspiration is especially meaningful because this word alone is very much avoided by many Paralympians. Too often, the media characterizes the mere existence and participation of people with disabilities as inspirational.
So, whether the word is mentioned or not, it almost always ends up in a journalist’s piece about an athlete with a disability. This description, however, couldn’t be more fitting in this case.
It seems to be an honest reflection by the members of Team USA about not only what their team meant to them as they endured workouts together and skated their way to a bronze, but what it continues to mean to them today. Because every practice, every tournament, and every Paralympic Games has to come to a close, so much remains after these highlights in the lives of athletes.
For a few, the return to the United States was delayed by a short tour of Europe. James Connelly went to Rome with his family, but had a difficult time with the cobble stone streets.
The inaccessibility of other countries can be a learning experience for athletes as they venture outside of the Village to visit with friends and family after the Games. It’s an interesting reminder of another aspect of what it means to be an American with a disability.
Back in the United States, however, there still exist both visible and invisible obstacles for Paralympians. Perhaps one of the least discussed and more frustrating is much of the general public’s confusion for the identity of elite disabled athletes with participants in the Special Olympics.
Each and every Paralympian has dealt with dozens of questions like, “Are you excited to go to the Special Olympics? How were the Special Olympics? What does it feel like to be a Special Olympian?” Each and every Paralympian also eventually develops their own way to deal with this confusion.
The ultimate goal for Steven Cash by correcting them is to, “spread more information about the Paralympics.” While it can be awkward, most find a tactful way to explain the difference because as James Connelly explains, “they definitely respect you more as an athlete after that.”
As the members of the US sled hockey team disperse to go on with their lives, they will undoubtedly continue their mission to spread more information on the Games. This mission lies squarely on the shoulders of the athletes and their supporters until the United States matches other countries’ coverage of this international competition.
Connelly, Emmerson, and Cash all three plan to continue training and they aim to capture gold in the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
The US team this year had 8 players under 20, so many are expected to return. For now, life outside the rink is slowly returning to normalcy for the members of Team USA. School and work has resumed along with catching up with friends and family.
Still, the memories from Torino and the bond of a team are not far from the minds of any of the players. Each carries with them their own inspiration-not simply because they are an athlete with a disability, but because they have done what few can claim-achieved a lifetime dream and returned home to strive for more in the future.