From March 7th to the 16th over 600 athletes from 50 different countries participated in the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Athletes competed in four main events including: Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding, Biathlon and Cross-Country Skiing, Ice Sledge Hockey, and Wheelchair Curling. Skiing events are divided based on how individuals will participate. There are both sitting and standing Alpine skiing events based on the athletes’ level of mobility, as well as a separate category for those who are solely visually impaired. Similar to the Alpine or downhill skiing, Cross-Country Skiing is also divided by athletes who are either sitting or standing.
Both the Winter and Summer Paralympic Games are organized and run by the International Paralympic Committee or IPC. Founded in 1989 and based in Bonn, Germany, the IPC is run by 200 members and employs over 70 additional individuals from 17 countries. The Committee is composed of a General Assembly (its decision-making body), a Governing Board (an executive body) and a Management Team as well as different Standing Committees responsible for addressing policies to bring to the attention of the entire General Assembly for debate and adoption. The vision of the IPC, as proclaimed on its website, “is to enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” Furthermore, the IPC states that “The Paralympic Movement builds a bridge which links sport with social awareness thus contributing to the development of a more equitable society with respect and equal opportunities for all individuals.”
The title of ‘Paralympic’ games is often misunderstood by many as being related to paraplegia or paralysis. In fact the prefix ‘para’ is Greek for “alongside” and is meant to represent the games being immediately after or alongside, the Olympic Games. With that clarification in mind, even many of the participating athletes do not have paralysis that would be associated with the term ‘para’. There are a wide range of different types of disabilities present at the games including congenital defects associated with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, there are athletes that lack one or more limbs where they may choose to use prosthetics in the place of amputated limbs, and finally there are those who have suffered paralyzing injuries leading to permanent immobility such as spinal cord injury or stroke.
The 10 days of sports that began on March 7th culminated into a number of first-time events, including Russia participating in Ice Sledge Hockey, premiering their team for the first time in a Paralympics game. The Russian hockey team proved it was anything but novice after winning the silver medal, behind only the United States who for the first time in Paralympic history won consecutive gold medals, after having won the Hockey Gold medal this year as well as at the 2010 Vancouver Canada Paralympic games. Unique also to this year’s games was the participation and overwhelming perseverance of youth athletes. From 14-year-old Australian snowboarder Ben Tudoope to team USA’s Sledge Hockey athletes Brody Roybal (#4) and Declan Farmer (#6), who are 15 and 16 years of age respectively.
Every athlete brought with them their own unique story to their competitions which were often described during their events. Take 27-year-old Evan Strong who led the United States sweep in the men’s snowboard cross in the Alpine event category. It was 10 days before his 18th birthday when Evan was broadsided by a white SUV while riding his motorcycle, throwing him 100 feet from his vehicle. He describes coming to after being hit, lying flat on his back on the asphalt some distance away from the crash and looking up to see his left leg laying atop his right shoulder. Remarking on his hospitalization he states, “I remember being in the ICU on my 18th birthday and telling everyone… I will skateboard again”. Having been an avid skateboarder and surfer, Evan in time learned to adapt to his prostheses and eventually took up snowboarding, and with practice, fought his way to Sochi nearly a decade after his accident. Evan took the gold alongside his two American teammates Michael Shea and Keith Gabel winning the Silver and Bronze. This year was the first year of such an event when the IPC “announced [in May 2012] that men’s and women’s snowboard cross for athletes with lower limb impairments would debut at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games as a part of the alpine skiing program.”
Also worth note are the Team USA Sledge Hockey athletes who were able to secure their title gained during the Vancouver Paralympics four years ago. The team’s journey to Sochi became the topic of a PBS documentary “Ice Warriors” that travels with the players as they tell their stories and perspective of the adapted sport they have come to love. Nearly 20% of all of the athletes competing in the 2014 Paralympics are military veterans, four of whom are on Sledge Hockey. Rico Roman, Jen Lee, Paul Schaus, and Josh Sweeney give an insightful glimpse on the impact military service has had on their lives but yet none of them seemed to regret the tragedies that befell them. Anyone who takes a moment to watch this year’s games will notice that this type of courage is pervasive throughout events. So many of the athletes represent a remarkable shift in consciousness that is an essential component to changing the public’s attitude towards those with disabilities away from what some individuals cannot do but rather towards the capabilities and strengths that they contribute to an ever-changing society.