Let the Games Begin: Countdown to the Winter Paralympic Games

In Sports, Wheelin' and Dealin' by Kara Sheridan

In just a week, the Winter Paralympic Games will commence with an Opening Ceremony celebration of ability, perseverance, and the reality that dreams can come true. All within the context of elite sports for people with disabilities, these Games have something to offer for everyone, regardless of your interest in the final times, scores, and medal counts.

These Games have already begun to embody the chosen theme of “Passion Lives Here” with today’s ceremonious ignition of the Paralympic Flame. After a an explosion of the Paralympic colors, red, blue, and green, three symbolic figures convened to begin the countdown to the world’s second largest winter sporting event, surpassed only by the Olympics.

A winner from the 1960 Rome Paralympic Games, a current elite disabled athlete, and a young person with dreams of becoming a Paralympian became one today as the magic of production transferred the flame from the stage in the area of the Colosseum to downtown Torino, where torchbearers will carry the flame to it’s final destination for the start of the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games on March 10.

The US Paralympic Team is comprised of 56 elite athletes, competing in each of the six sports offered at this year’s Games. Alpine skiing is the largest team this year, comprised of three divisions for men and women, sitting, standing, and a category for the blind/visually impaired Nordic skiing is an exceptionally interesting sport, combining cross-country skiing and sharp shooting with several classifications to ensure a level competition across different ability levels.

The US sled hockey team heads to Torino as a fan favorite, ready to defend their first team medal-gold in Salt Lake City. The American wheelchair curling athletes are also awaited with anticipation as they will be the first to represent our country with the debut of this Paralympic sport.

As the athletes make their final preparations, the buzz is starting to build across the world about the anticipated standout performances and the lives by these athletes beyond the view of spectators.

Unfortunately, the United States lags far behind much of the world in its dismal lack of coverage for any Paralympic Games. The athletes competing in Athens experienced ups and downs as plans were changed to broadcast the Summer Games in their entirety, then some competitions, then highlights, and then a top network special, evaporated to only a two hour summary sponsored by VISA and aired on the Outdoor Life Network.

In 2004, I set two American records in my first Paralympic swim and passed the press barricade to answer questions about my race before my warm down swim. Among the dozens of reporters from other countries with much smaller teams, one reporter covered Paralympic swimming live-and he did so as a volunteer.

With prelims and finals selling out the last three days of competitions and highlights of the record-breaking swims being shown around the world, the reason for the absence of American coverage is definitely not related to a lack of public popularity.

If given the chance, the United States audience would see that the Paralympics are an entirely new level of elite sport already enjoyed by millions across the world.

For people with disabilities, the Paralympics offers the unique chance for athletes and advocates to unite in the celebration of our culture. Many confuse the very name of the Paralympics to mean simply an alternate Olympics or to represent the Games of those with paralysis.

Both interpretations are incorrect as the Greek word para actually means “more than”, “over and above”, and “beyond”. The history of the Paralympics details the name was chosen with the intention of “parallel” to preface the Olympic root. These will be the first Winter Paralympic Games in which this concept will become a reality as the same International Olympic Committee members, sponsors, and facilities have planned and will host the world’s Paralympic athletes next week.

As the Olympians pack up and move out of the renowned Village, the Paralympians move in to take their place as equals. The athletes shatter any ties to pity associated with disability as well as crushing the drones of “inspiration” simply based on the perception of loss.

Many will field dozens of interviews with the message of pride, accomplishment, success, and integrity with and because of their disability. No matter how much skiing sparks your competitive drive or curling intrigues your spirit, now is a time to celebrate as an American and as a proud person with a disability.

Sometime between March 10 and March 19th I encourage you to wear your red, white, and blue with pride and spread your own message to our fellow Americans who aren’t as fortunate to have exposure to the Games. While television isn’t serving our country with coverage, the internet is alive with anticipation of the Torino Paralympics.

There are several groups on MySpace and Yahoo as well as the opportunity to join the same list-serve that provides daily updates to the US media live from Torino. Several of the athletes have their own websites offering a glimpse of the athlete and the person outside the sport.

Every site I visited provided the opportunity to contact the hosting US Paralympic team member, which would be an excellent way to show your personal support.

Here are just a few athletes linked to their own personal website:

Lacey Heward-Women’s sitting Alpine Skiing
Tyler Walker-Men’s sitting Alpine Skiing
Bob Balk-Men’s Nordic Skiing
Monica Bascio-Women’s Nordic Skiing
Candace Cable-Women’s Nordic Skiing

And finally, perhaps one of the most promising aspects of this year’s world-wide coverage of the Paralympics is the launching of a multi-lingual internet-broadcast channel featuring the Games throughout their duration.

There will be over 100 hours of live broadcast spotlighting the thousands of athletes heading to Torino and coverage has already begun in anticipation of the 2006 Winter Games.

Spread the word and check it out today at: www.paralympicsport.tv

So while it may not be as simple to support our US Paralympians by lounging on the couch and turning on the TV, it’s still very possible. We, as people with disabilities, are adept at thinking outside the box, so I’m confident that Team USA will feel our country’s pride as they enter the stadium in a few days for the Opening Ceremonies and later progress to triumph in their individual and team performances.

As a former Paralympian and as an American, I cannot wait to hear those renowned words in several languages echoing throughout the stadium, “Let the Games Begin!” And of course, “Go USA!”