espnW: Cat Bouwkamp
Tuesday was the day I fenced in my event (women’s foil Category A) here in London at the Paralympics, and it was rough, to say the least. I went into the experience with the biggest butterflies in my stomach and a lack of confidence in my own skills. I did have an abundance of support, though. With me were my two coaches, Julio Diaz and Les Stawicki, plus two of my amazing teammates, Ryan Estep and Joey Brinson. My parents were also up in the stands, cheering after every point.
One of the weirdest parts about fencing in a big competition like the Paralympics or a World Cup is that I have to be able to fight against people whom I’ve also learned from and have so much respect for. When I started wheelchair fencing three years ago, I had no idea what in the world I was doing. The people I compete against now are the same ones I looked to then for moves or mental approaches. There's a joke on my team that instead of being the "little sister," I'm the daughter -- because almost every other athlete in the wheelchair fencing community could be my father or mother.
When I went out to fence on Tuesday, my pool was a vicious one, and I started off slowly, not working to my full potential. After I got used to the crowd and atmosphere, I ended up working pretty well against two of my opponents. Unfortunately, it was too late to stage a comeback, and I didn't advance past the qualification rounds.
Oddly enough, I'm not devastated by this major loss. I do realize that I'm young and haven't reached my mental and physical peak in the sport. I also want to try out other wheelchair sports before Rio, and I plan on being there for the 2016 Paralympics no matter what. There is nothing that can replace the amazing feeling of coming to my first Paralympic Games, but I hope that I can achieve the first-time feeling of medaling at the Games in 2016.
Don't forget my name, America. I'll be back!
As of Saturday, I have been in London for a full week, yet it feels like I just got here yesterday.
The whole experience has been jaw-dropping. The athlete village itself really is almost its own city -- it has rows of apartment buildings, a main dining hall off on one end and an activity-filled community center at the other side. Since I watched the Olympics religiously this year, I had a vague idea what the experience would be like, but absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the experiences I would have once I got here.
In the Team USA part of the village, we occupy two apartment buildings and have team apartments with individual bedrooms off of the main apartment. In my apartment, there is my coach, team leader and two of my teammates. It's interesting since it's my first time living with these people. Our rooms are fairly small, especially when you add all the amazing Nike and Ralph Lauren clothing and accessories we received.
It's impossible to find the floor in some spots. I share a room with the other woman from the fencing team who is the team leader. It's rare when both or either of us are actually in our rooms, so it's not so much of a big deal that it's a small apartment.
Speaking of clothing, though, the second day we were here, we went through processing, which is basically when you go to a faraway venue and get gifts and shoes and glasses and rings and skirts and shirts and hats all shoved at you. It was like Christmas, Hanukkah and my birthday all at once during the best four hours of my life. We get mainly T-shirts and jackets so we can easily be defined by our country. Overall, we received clothing from the wonderful Nike and Ralph Lauren, plus Oakley sunglasses, an Omega watch, Paralympic ring, an awesome P&G toiletry pack and our opening and closing ceremonies outfits. It was honestly one of the coolest things I've ever gone through.
The rest of the days between then and now have been spent examining those clothes and just hanging out and meeting athletes from other sports and countries that were in the same boat I was. Since, at 16, I'm the youngest on the team by a fairly large margin and I'm the only girl, I spent a lot of time getting to know the younger athletes from other sports, such as soccer, track and field and tennis.
With all these new friends, we walked as one huge delegation and family into the last Wednesday's opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium. As fun as standing outside moving inch by inch in 50-degree weather in a dainty skirt sounds, it was actually one of the better times I've had so far. It was the first time I had seen all the athletes from the U.S. together; finally meeting all the names I had heard about was awesome.
The moment we walked out from under the stands and into the roar of the full stadium crowd under the bright blue lights and millions of camera flashes, my breath was literally taken away and time stood still as I took in the view of everything around us. That moment was the solidification of the fact that I made it. I, the 16-year-old blonde, baby-faced girl next door had worked, cried, sweated and bled my way to the Paralympics, and I can't be stopped. I won't be stopped.
At the end of the opening ceremony, there was a song played that said:
"I am what I am; nothing less and nothing more."
So here is what I am: I am the young one. I am the underdog. I am the underestimated. I am the sarcastic one. But, most of all, I am the fighter, and I won't be stopped until I've done everything possible to reach my goal.