So you are a double leg amputee or were born without legs. You are blind or have dwarfism. Yet here, the only thing that matters is that you have a heart. The swimmers in these games are faster than most of us. The wheelchair athletes make you forget they can’t walk. The blind dribble soccer ball better than anyone I know. I was a bit embarrassed to realize how little I know about their capabilities – these are not your typical superstar athletes that NBC talks about every night. You won’t see them on TV or anywhere – it is as if there is a purposeful effort to hide it from us – instead we should be showing it to all the kids to realize what is possible with determination.
Over the past few days I had a chance to see and even meet some of these superstars. Here are my favorites:
- As I am standing by the door to the Central court (my daily duty) and preventing people from coming in during the game, a small lady in Australian national outfit waits in front of me patiently. I asked her if she is with the team and she very quietly, modestly responds “yes, I am an athlete”. Did you already compete, what sport? Triathlon, and I managed to win”. She literally whispered it. Oh my god!! My first gold medalist spotting – I was so excited – if you were looking at us it would look as if I won, not her. Of course I had to snap a picture with her! Katie Kelly generously explained that she has a tunnel vision so she has a guide who leads the tandem bike, runs and swims connected with her – so the other lady is about as good as the actual competitor. If you think a team – this is the real team.
- The families – as Lavi and I sit at a little street food joint having small dinner (acareje, Bahia typical food which was fabulous mix of shrimp, hot sauce, some veggies I never heard of and some corn polenta-like mass), this older English gentleman asks if he can join us – and is overjoyed when he sees we speak English. His son just won gold medal in rowing. Again, we wanted to buy him a drink as he was so humble, relieved and happy – but mostly relieved as the anticipation, nerves, training and overall experience seems very tense coming to these moments. He did share that his son has been the favorite and it has been nerve wrecking to come to this moment. So here he is, eating street food alone, on the night of the big win – and he has been the coach since his his son’s childhood. The rowing was in the large Rio lagoon called Lagoa which is right next to Lavinia’s apartment, away from the Olympic park so most athletes are not around here.
- In the 40C heat, as I stand in the ticket scanning booth – dying for coffee because there is no coffee anywhere in the tennis area, 2 British ladies approach me asking with panic “there is no coffee here, where can we buy it and will you please let us back in?” Officially, you are not allowed back into the court once you leave. Since I so sympathized with their lack of caffein, I let them out. As they got back, they brought me a cup of coffee as well and shared that their son/nephew are playing the next game – and he ended up winning it all! The Brits actually had an incredibly strong team here, so did the Dutch. There were Dutch only finals, and British only finals.
Throughout the 2 weeks, I saw some amazing athletic experiences. Wheelchair rugby – phenomenal! Who would have thought that rugby is so exciting but it was the best event I attended. Of course, it is always much better when the home team is playing as the Brazilians cheered as if they won the whole thing overtime anyone green/yellow ended up on the field. Incredibly proud, loud and supportive. They truly made the Olympics and Paralympics unique and fun. And given I was working with the 2 sports where I had to keep them quiet all the time (!!), it was a big change – and kudos to me for shooshing so well – to see how loud and happy they get during the sport!
So look up some of these superstars – every one of them is amazing – and avoid “inspirational porn” as I learned. What struck me is the positive attitude, the diversity of ages (from teenagers to retirees), the fact that 90% of disabilities are not visible. There were more tears of joy here than anywhere else – very few tears of disappointment. I hope these issues and accomplishments can be brought into light more frequently and become part of everyone’s realization and life – not just once every 4 years – and even then, barely mentioned on TV.