If you were to picture an athlete, what would you imagine them to look like? LeBron James? Some stallion from the UMaine hockey team? Not many would picture a triple amputee or someone confined to a wheelchair, but these are exactly the types of people that assembled to compete at the Paralympic Games in Rio this month.
These Paralympics featured around 4,350 athletes from more than 160 countries competing for 528 gold medals in 22 different sports. Athletes competing in the Paralympics fall under at least one of 10 impairment types. These types range from impaired muscle power to ataxia, a neurological condition that impairs coordination. Of all the impaired athletes participating at the Rio Paralympics, perhaps the most notable was Abdellatif Baka of Algeria who won gold in the 1,500-meter. Baka ran in the T13 category, the lowest section of visual impairment, with a time of 3:48.29. What is remarkable about Baka’s time is that it is 1.7 seconds faster than Rio Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz’s 1,500-meter time. Baka’s win sent the internet on fire. A Paralympian more athletic than an Olympian? How can that be possible?
What people fail to realize is how tactical the 1,500-meter is. It is not 100-meter sprint the likes of which Usain Bolt dominates at. Gold medalists in sprinting events can without a doubt claim they are the faster, more athletic sportsman. But someone competing in the 1,500-meter must consider strategy. Centrowitz’s time was the slowest gold medal time since 1932. He employed what is known as “Fartlek” tactic, or controlling the pace of the race by incorporating intervals of high speeds and low speeds. Centrowitz kept the speed low and by the final lap logged a time of 50.62 seconds, edging out silver medalist Taoufik Makhloufi by 0.11 seconds.
Yes, Baka ran a faster 1,500-meter than Centrowitz but comparing their times is wrong. It would be like claiming that since the Red Sox beat the Yankees, the Red Sox will also beat the Blue Jays because the Blue Jays lost to the Yankees. They are two different baseball games with many different variables much like how the two 1,500-meter’s were two completely different races. Just because Baka had a better time than Centrowitz doesn’t mean Baka would have won gold at the Olympics. Regardless, Baka’s performance was legendary. He set a Paralympic world record and shined the spotlight on himself, his sport and the struggles his competitors face every single day.
The struggles that Paralympians endure are near unfathomable. Team U.S.A.’s Jill Walsh was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010. She’s a 52-year-old mother who switched from triathlons to cycling when running became too hard for her. Dave Wagner is seeking his fourth gold medal this year as he competes for Team U.S.A. in Wheelchair Tennis. Wagner was paralyzed from the waist down in a surfing accident in 1995. Matt Stutzman of the U.S.A. Archery team was born without arms. Stutzman taught himself how to shoot with his foot in order to pursue his love of the game.
Patrick Blake Leeper was born without legs. In college he received a grant for a pair of carbon fiber prosthetics. Equipped with the advanced prosthetics, Leeper tried out for University of Tennessee’s track team. His impressive performance landed him a spot at London in the 2012 Paralympic Games. Unfortunately, like other athletes who have come before him, Leeper battles with alcoholism and drug usage. A recent drug test barred him from participating this year in Rio. Leeper took the incident as a wake-up call, training harder than ever before to come out of this mess, stronger and faster than ever before.
At the Paralympics, these stories are not just common, they are practically everywhere: a human defying all odds to reach the pinnacle of sporting. After watching some highlights of the 2016 Paralympic games, I found myself asking “what does it mean to be an athlete?” You assume an athlete is able-bodied, in shape, maybe muscular or at least coordinated to a certain degree. Paralympians challenge that view. Can you imagine battling alcoholism without your legs? Would you keep shooting archery without your arms? A true athlete loves the sport they play and there is no one on this planet that loves their sport more than a Paralympian. A true athlete inspires his or her fans and there is nobody more inspiring than a Paralympian.