Thank you, Mr. President

Recently, the New York Times ran a cover story about the challenges young disabled athletes face in gaining access to competitive sports opportunities. Some of you reader-types may have seen that. Fewer of you probably saw my letter to the sports editor that ran a few days later (ironically, under a bunch of letters about a certain idiot cyclist).

None of you have seen the full text of the letter I sent (below), as they whittled it down to 150 words from the “spare” 500 I allowed myself. I share this today because President Obama just used his presidential power to give disabled students equal access to competitive sports in schools. I KNEW I liked him! And not just because we share a sense of humor.


Inclusionary school sports programs are a no-brainer step in the right direction that will improve the lives of students, the vibrancy of school communities, and the competitiveness of future Paralympic teams.

I’ve always been excited to be be on the forefront of this movement, first as a Paralympic athlete, and, now, as a coach and a mentor through my local Paralympic Sport Clubs (the Riekes Center, BORP, and others). One of my personal goals is to show coaches and officials in a variety of sports that everyone benefits from having young disabled athletes fully participating in their sports programs. Are we meeting much resistance? None yet. Probably because it IS simple and cost-effective – they way we approach it.

So, thanks to President Obama, for (finally) making the kids as important as the vets.

To the Editor:

Re: “Forging Path to Starting Line For Younger Disabled Athletes”, Mary Pilon, 1/16/13.

Inclusion is absolutely the answer for young athletes with disabilities. But the way that Hollermann and others have approached the solution to her predicament of racing alone is disastrous for the development of Paralympic and disability sport in this country. You have no one to race against? Don’t hire lawyers. Convince other wheelchair-using youngsters to take up sport with you.

Having fought my NGBs for years – I was turned away or ignored by every Olympic-caliber coach in the San Francisco Bay Area during my career as a Paralympic swimmer – I understand the frustration and anger of feeling like you are being treated as a second-class athlete because, in my case, you were born with a funny little arm. En route to becoming a two-sport Paralympian, I fought a lot of battles for inclusion but always kept in mind the greater end result: equal treatment of and support for the next generation of Paralympians.

Lawsuits like Hollermann’s tend to create a false sense of “fair competition.” And while that may serve her individual interests and expectations in the face of an ignorant and uneducated coach or governing body, the expense and acrimony does more to set back the Paralympic movement than move it forward. As disabled athletes we need to be honest and genuine about our abilities and what true inclusion entails.

Yes, wheelchairs do have a speed advantage over two-leg runners, especially in long events, so, no, they don’t belong in a running-running race. But also, yes, the wheelchair division should score points. The other schools don’t like that your school is automatically scoring points by entering you in a race? Well then maybe they ought find some students who use wheelchairs and recruit them to the team! (At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the Russians thoroughly trounced the world precisely because they saw there was little competition in the women’s events, and they unapologetically took advantage of it. End result: the U.S. started to invest in women’s sports, and there is lively competition today.)

The issue is not isolated to the local, high school, grassroots level. All summer we heard about Pistorius who sued his way into the Olympic Games after he failed to qualify based on his running. Does he have an advantage over athletes with two full legs? The question is unanswerable and preposterous. It’s comparing apples and oranges. What he needs – and, notably, this is what he got at the Paralympic Games – are similar competitors with Olympic-caliber genetic potential and work ethic, supported by NGBs who treat their Paralympians as Olympians.

We have a long way to go in this country, especially at the local level. (We have, however, made significant progress at the elite level in the last decade.) Inclusionary sports programs for kids – and veterans – are the cost-effective answer. And as swim coach Renee Miller pointed out, inclusion didn’t actually require much change. Most of it was simply a change in attitude.

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One comment

  • Jim Marrion

    Absolutely a no brainer! In Athens I got to meet so many athletes that just had different circumstances at birth, war or car accidents. These people are just missing a few parts – something that happens to me every time I try to assemble something out of a box. And I also learned that most paralympic athletes are sponsored by their governments and receive salaries. Why can’t we do it here? If you want to see pure brass balls, watch a swim meet with a Mexican kid who has no arms and just one leg out there doing his best.