Paralympic Academy Inspires Young Athletes and Coaches

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By John Register

The inaugural Paralympic Academy, sponsored by US Paralympics, was more than a success; it transcended my expectations and the lives of the six children and coaches who won trips to Athens, Greece, to experience the 12th Paralympic Games.

In chairs, from left: Zach Bobowski; Casandra Rightmyer; Kristen Knabel; Second row, from left: Jeannie Senter; Greta Niemenas; Ricky Egan; Pam Carey; Kelsey Paul; Susan Oglesby; Back Row, from left: John Register; Brian Wood; Yvette Jarvis; Daniel Humphreys; Jessica Wignall; Charlie Huebner.
In chairs, from left: Zach Bobowski; Casandra Rightmyer; Kristen Knabel; Second row, from left: Jeannie Senter; Greta Niemenas; Ricky Egan; Pam Carey; Kelsey Paul; Susan Oglesby; Back Row, from left: John Register; Brian Wood; Yvette Jarvis; Daniel Humphreys; Jessica Wignall; Charlie Huebner.

The goal of the International Academy program is to inspire children with a physical disability and the coaches who train them by introducing them to Paralympic athletes in their competitive environment.

This trip turned out to be more than just watching Paralympic heroes; it really showed each of the participants what is possible in life--whether one has a disability or not!

Six children with physical disabilities and six coaches were selected to represent their states and disability sports programs, based on an essay contest titled "What Ability Means to Me." The coach selections were based on recommendations from peers, supervisors, and the children they coached.

The student winners were: Zachary Bobowski, Blaze Sports Clubs of America, Atlanta, Georgia; Ricky Egan, National Ability Center, Park City, Utah; Kelsey Paul, National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), Winter Park, Colorado; Casandra Rightmyer, Lakeshore Foundation, Birmingham, Alabama; Kristen Knabel, Frazier Rehabilitation, Louisville, Kentucky; and Greta Neimanas, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), Chicago, Illinois.

The coach winners were: Susan Oglesby, Blaze Sports Clubs of America; Jeannie Senter, Lakeshore Foundation; Jessica Day Wignall, National Ability Center; Daniel Humphreys, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; Beth Fox, National Sports Center for the Disabled; and Pamela Carey, HealthSouth, Louisiana.

"Ability is leaving your comfort zone. Ability is reaching for your goals. Ability is you!" wrote Greta Neimanas, age 16, a below-elbow amputee. The young athletes and coaches were about to leave their comfort zones in the United States and experience the wonders of life abroad. They would also realize many aspects of the life of a Paralympic fan and athlete at the 12th annual Paralympic Games.

Upon their arrival in Athens on September 16, they were given a formal reception at the Marriott Ledra Hotel by members of the US Paralympic staff. Some dignitaries met with the future stars, including Prince Albert of Monaco.

Great Experiences; Inspiring Words

The participants enjoyed many outstanding experiences. For instance, Paralympic sprinter April Holmes (Somerdale, New Jersey) started their second day with an inspirational speech during breakfast. Holmes, a below-knee amputee, qualified for her first Paralympic team in three events: the 100m, 200m, and the long jump. "But every day that I live, I want to be more than I thought I could be,"' said Holmes, borrowing a quote from the Whitney Houston song, "One Moment in Time."

That evening, Academy participants enjoyed the Opening Ceremonies from a box suite at the Olympic Stadium. Early the next morning, the participants welcomed their second guest speaker, seven-time Paralympian Chris Waddell (Park City, Utah). A soft-spoken winter and summer athlete, Waddell talked about his experiences as a professional athlete, saying, "I am on the road all the time, and I don't get a chance to stop and relax from sport to sport." He used the lyrics from the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to convey how he feels when he is doing his event: "I'm the best that's ever been."

By 10 AM the group had made it to the Velodrome. The excitement grew as they watched and then met cyclist Ron Williams (Birmingham, Alabama). "He's so hot!" said one of the young women from the Academy group.

Greta Neimanas decided she was going to get a bike and start pedaling her way to make the US team for Beijing, China, 2008.

At 12:30 PM the group watched the first medal ceremony for the US after cyclists Karissa Whitsell (Springfield, Oregon) and Katie Compton (Colorado Springs, Colorado) earned the silver in the women's B1-3 tandem kilometer time trial with a time of 1:11.221.

The group then shifted gears and headed to the indoor hall to watch the US men's wheelchair basketball team defeat Japan, 54-46. Although the team got off to a slow start in the first half, it managed the eight-point victory behind a strong second-half surge and clutch free throws late in the game, and, of course, the loud chants of "U-S-A" by the Academy entourage.

Another early breakfast brought in yet another Paralympic athlete to speak to the Academy members: Travis Mohr. Travis, a dwarf swimmer and engineer, spoke about the sacrifices it takes to make the Paralympic Team. His statement, "Every day that you don't practice is a day that someone else is getting better," made a powerful impact on Casandra Rightmyer, an aspiring basketball player. Her mother commented, "When Casandra returned home to Alabama, we had to get to basketball practice that night, because she is not going to miss any more practice."

Scott Douglass, assistant chef de mission (Birmingham, Alabama) and three-time Paralympian and bronze medalist in the wheelchair tennis doubles in 2000 in Sydney, reiterated the importance of believing in yourself and sacrifice in order to achieve your dream. His comments wrapped up all of the previous speakers' points very nicely.

Later, the participants were back at the indoor hall watching the women's wheelchair basketball team lose a heartbreaker to Australia, 62-61.

Next stop was swimming. However, the venue was sold out. Though some of the participants were upset about not getting in, all were pleased to cheer on Steve Welch, Bedford, Texas, at the tennis venue.

On the way to the tennis venue, the Academy kids ran into tennis sensation Karin Korb (Atlanta, Georgia), who graciously took time to speak to them about her Paralympic experiences and encourage them to continue to pursue their dreams.

Welch cruised to a win over Japan's Tyoichi (6-1; 6-0) and came out to meet the Paralympic kids. He took photos and signed autographs and continued the encouraging words they were getting at every stop.

Visiting the Village

The final surprise of the day came when the kids and coaches were accepted to visit the Paralympic Village. "I was surprised to see how far the Village was from the rest of Athens," observed Greta Niemanas. Will Carlin and Sarah Billmyer gave an introduction about what they would see in the Village. They showed where the flag-raising ceremony would take place and where the USA dorms were. They were also able to go to the training and relaxation rooms for the US athletes.

"I can't believe I met Carlee [Hoffman], She was just, like, sitting there watching TV in the village," exclaimed Melanie Rightmyer, who, like Carlee, is a bilateral below-knee amputee.

After a quick shopping spree at the Paralympic Store, it was back to the venue to watch track and field. Classification T11 (visually impaired) was going on in the long jump. "I was amazed the people were jumping so far and could not see where they were going or where they were going to land," noticed Rightmyer.

The participants then made their way back to the Royal Olympic with dreams of Torino, Italy, and Beijing, China, dancing in their heads.

Goodbyes and Memories

The trip ended just as fast as it began. We reflected on what the Paralympic Academy group had learned from the athletes and competition. The kids agreed that it was time for them to spread the word back in the United States about just how awesome the Paralympic Games are. They also agreed that it was their duty to find other athletes and help bring them along, so future US teams will be that much stronger.

The kids stayed up all night talking about their time in Athens. Though the goodbyes were tearful, their friendships were just beginning--and they would have lifelong memories to take home.

PARALYMPIC ACADEMY DEFINED

The Paralympic Academy is a national youth outreach program of US Paralympics and its state partners. The goals of the Paralympic Academy are to:

  • introduce youth (12-18) to Paralympic sport;
  • introduce coaches, physical educators, and other sport and disability professionals to Paralympic sport;
  • promote Paralympic sport throughout the United States via governmental initiatives, private efforts, and media outlets;
  • establish a network of support and uniform language within the Paralympic sport movement; and
  • enable local organizations to use the collective resources of the Paralympic Academy network to enhance Paralympic sport programs. 

 

State Paralympic Academy

Each State Paralympic Academy is an annual event (generally one-two days) that will consist of:

  • an introduction to Paralympic sport for potential Paralympic athletes aged 1218;
  • training in Paralympic sport for physical education teachers, coaches, and other local sport professionals;
  • programs for parents, program directors, and community leaders involved in local Paralympic sport programs;
  • media initiatives to promote Paralympic sport; and
  • special events to support local Paralympic sport programs. 

 

National Paralympic Academy

The National Paralympic Academy will be a two-day workshop and recognition event for students, coaches, program leaders, and donors from each State Paralympic Academy.

The National Paralympic Academy:

  • will be held every two years (odd-numbered) at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado;
  • will be led by Paralympic athletes and coaches;
  • will recognize the best practices of state partners in conducting Paralympic Academies; and
  • will include professional education sessions for coaches, program directors, and other disability sport professionals.

 

International Paralympic Academy

The International Paralympic Academy will recognize outstanding State Paralympic Academy athletes and teachers/coaches with an educational program held at the Paralympic Games every two years (summer/winter).

For more information about the Paralympic Academy, visit www.usparalympics.org/C7008EFD8B5B40E7B29B76A31132DD01.htm  or contact John Register: 719.866.2038; john.register@usoc.org