As the closing ceremony of the Paralympics concluded a summer like no other, this end is merely the marker of a new beginning
I have re-written this blog at least five times. Crumpled bits of paper litter my floor, like a scene out of a movie. Somewhat fitting I reckon, as I am trying to sum up in 1000 words, what can only be described as a fairytale experience.
Once upon a time, seven years ago to be precise, on a sofa in North West London, I watched the announcement of the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games. My first thought went back to the amazing atmosphere that I vaguely remembered from Euro 1996 – crowds and banners lining the approach to Wembley stadium, within an electric atmosphere that gripped the nation. And that was only one sport. What would the greatest show on earth have in store? Whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it.
In the approach to London 2012, I was in my final years of university in East London. Every morning, I would get the train out of Liverpool Street into the depths of Essex. Every day I would pass the hotly debated Stratford site. Every day, waiting, wondering, what would become of it? On those cold, dark winter mornings as I sapped the heat from my coffee cup I would look forward to the image of the sun rising over the Olympic stadium, a scene that never failed to draw a smile on my face.
Whilst the negativity surrounding the games continued to escalate, deep down I knew that, when the time came, all the critics would be silenced by the power and beauty that underlies the Olympic and Paralympic movement; the human spirit.
Of all the amazing feats of skill, athleticism and determination that were seen during the eleven days of competition, one thing truly captured my heart. Day eight saw the beginning of the wheelchair rugby competition and I just happened to be working outside the basketball arena on this hallowed day. Now, for those of you that haven’t come across wheelchair rugby before, let me introduce it to you by its more affectionate name: Murderball.
At risk of exposing my ignorance of disability sport – I had never heard of wheelchair rugby until these Paralympics. Clearly, I was in the minority, as it was the fastest selling event at the games, reflected by the crowds it drew. The queue to get into the arena began to grow well in advance of the opening match: GB vs. USA. For anybody familiar with the Olympic park, to give you an idea, the queue extended from the front of the basketball arena all the way around the perimeter of the street market and right over Channelsea Crossing – even longer than the queue for the world’s largest McDonald’s (believe me that’s an achievement!). The atmosphere was buzzing.
As I stood at the information point overlooking the ever-increasing queue I was approached by an elderly American couple asking for more details about the event; what time the doors were due to open, where they could get hold of memorabilia, etc. Now, having recently come to learn of the brutality that can envelope some of these wheelchair rugby games I couldn’t help but wonder what such a lovely, well-mannered elderly couple were doing flying across the Atlantic to witness such an event.
“We’re here supporting our son” said the gentleman with the widest, proudest of smiles. “He plays for the US national team.”
Having seen the mental torture my own mother would put herself through every weekend during my brother’s American football playing days, I could not understand how any parents could watch their son purposefully ram his wheelchair at top speed into that of an opponent. As they proceeded to tell me their story, however, it all became clear.
Caught in an unfortunate motorcycle accident, Josh Wheeler spent a year in hospital recovering from numerous injuries including a broken neck that left him paraplegic. During this hospital stay, one of his physical therapists approached Josh with a DVD of the 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball and the rest, as they say, is history.
I came home that day fascinated by Josh’s story, and jumped onto my computer to read more.
For many, such a life-changing experience can feel like the end of the road. In one interview, Josh describes many dark days, where he struggled with the new challenges he had to deal with. Fortunately, he describes these challenges with a smile as they provided him with the motivation to get to where he is today. Whilst I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Josh himself, I will never forget the smiles on his parents’ faces; how proud they are of him, and how grateful they are for the opportunities he has had to travel the world as a result of his new life. Having endured a year-long stay in hospital, during which his survival wasn’t even guaranteed, and to come out on top, he and his fellow team-mates will always represent to me the epitome of the Paralympic spirit.
Oscar Pistorius, perhaps the most famous Paralympian of modern times, encapsulates this notion in a beautiful quote: “You are not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have”.
What’s so great about this, for me, is that it is a simple, yet universal truth. It does not pertain to disability alone, in the same way that the Paralympics are not only for people living with disabilities. For me, the Paralympics are a celebration of the human spirit’s defiance in the face of adversity. They represent a celebration of hope over despondency. One door opening in the shadow of another closed.
Of course, spirit, hope and open doors are not enough on their own. They require action, and that my friends, is down to us. The Paralympic flame has now been extinguished for four more years but this is by no means the end. If anything it is only the end of the beginning. We have watched as these amazing athletes have delivered superhuman performances; they’ve done their bit. As they slowly leave London, and the Olympic hubbub dies down, the hard work really begins. It’s now time for us to take the reins of the legacy of London 2012 and ensure that we protect the spark of the Paralympic flame in our hearts and carry the beauty of this spirit into everything that we do.
Photo Credits: Yasmin Al-Asady Featured image from: http://sports.yahoo.com/top/photo?slug=89449c63-38d9-32ca-b7bc-94e2b3f42e65-l
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