Perspective from U.S. Paralympians
DALLAS -- On Day 3 of the Olympic Media Summit, a few members of the U.S. Paralympic team shared their stories with the media. Here's a look at some of those athletes:[+] EnlargePeter Parks/AFP/Getty ImagesJerome Singleton, left, and Oscar Pistorius will likely face off again at the Paralympic Games.
Jerome Singleton Jr.If you read about the Olympics, you're probably familiar with Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter hoping to compete in this summer's London Games. You may not have heard of Jerome Singleton Jr., and that's our fault.
While the media covered the Pistorius story and the controversy over whether his prosthetic legs give him unfair advantage, Singleton went about his business, earning a dual degree in math and industrial engineering at Michigan, interning at NASA, researching at the nuclear physics lab in Geneva, studying such things as the effect of light on subterranean termites and, oh yes, beating Pistorius for the gold medal at last year's Paralympic world championships.
"Ali had Frazier. Magic had Larry Bird," Singleton said Tuesday at the Olympic Media Summit. "And Oscar has -- you're looking at him."
Singleton, 25, was born without a fibula in his right leg, and the leg was amputated below the knee when he was 18 months old. It didn't slow him much. He played basketball and football and ran track in high school and was rated one of South Carolina's top 100 football players. "My dad was commissioner for the South Carolina high school leg," Singleton said. "So when it came time to sign off for athletes to play, he signed off on me to play with the rest of the kids."
His father also told him that life can be seen as one of two things: a warning or an example. Singleton has made it the latter in academics and athletics. He eventually wants to earn a PhD in biomechanics with hopes of developing prosthetics that will eliminate many of the repetitive stress injuries that afflict amputee athletes. "With the right people and the right biomechanics, we can make a prosthetic for an athlete that works with their body, not against their body," he said. "It's all about having a productive life."
One reason Pistorius receives so much attention is because his best times are sufficient to make the South African Olympic team, which has less competition. Singleton's best times -- 11.1 in the 100 and 21.7 for the 200 -- aren't even fast enough to run in the U.S. trials. "If Oscar tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, it's very unlikely he would make it," Singleton said.
Singleton said he gains an advantage over Pistorius in the 100 because of the more powerful start he can get by pushing off his normal left leg but that it evens out later because the South African's two prosthetic legs aid his balance.
"In the 100, I'm able to get out fast, but I'm gonna get wobbly the further we get down the race," he said. "In the 200, balance is pretty important, which is why their world records are far away from ours. At the end of the day, I'll run against anybody. It's all about competition. You don't care who it is."
Despite their rivalry, Singleton said he and Pistorius have a good relationship.
"When Oscar made the world championship team, I sent him an email -- I'm not going to call long distance," he said. "But I sent him an email saying, 'You've done so much for this sport, I need to be on your level, and hopefully we can take this thing to a level that hasn't been seen.'" -- Jim Caple[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Ric FeldJosh Olson was the first active-duty soldier to be nominated for the Paralympic Games.
Josh OlsonJosh Olson removed his helmet and gloves and set them both behind his head. He tried to stay calm, but he knew life would never be the same, if there would be life at all.
Minutes earlier, while on a patrol mission in Iraq, his vehicle was ambushed by insurgents. Olson, leading the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, left the vehicle to return fire. That's when a rocket-propelled grenade blew his right leg out from under him.
As Olson was being rushed to medical help, he sat in the back of his Humvee and thought about his future. His left leg -- the good one -- hung out of the side of the vehicle. His right leg sat across his lap. He had dreamed of being an Army Ranger. Now that dream was gone.
"I remember thinking, 'If I make it through this, what is my family going to do now?'" he said. "'Am I going to be that guy in the wheelchair? Am I going to be able to have a wife and kids and all that? Am I going to have to live with my parents so they can take care of me?'"
Olson said his body felt like it was on fire, but then a breeze blew through the vehicle and soothed him. He closed his eyes and prayed.
"That was one of the most peaceful rides I've ever had in my life," Olson said. "I just knew everything would be OK."
Eight days later, Olson woke up at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., without his right leg. He figured his military career was over. Any day now, someone would walk into his room, hand him a stack of papers and let him know he now belonged to the Veterans Administration. But that never happened. Instead, during his occupational rehabilitation at Walter Reed, he rediscovered his ability for expert marksmanship and ended up joining the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga. This past March, he became the first active-duty soldier to qualify for the Paralympics, where he will compete in the R3 and R6 shooting divisions this September.
His success has helped paved the way for the creation of the Army's first Marksmanship Instructor Group and Paralympic Section, the first units designed specifically for wounded warriors unable to serve on active duty. At a time the Army is downsizing, Olson's achievements have helped create 24 new jobs for wounded veterans.
"Just because you're in a vehicle and there's a flash of light and everything has changed, it's not over," Olson said. "The story doesn't end. It's a whole new chapter. How you write it is up to you." -- Wayne Drehs[+] EnlargeMike Stobe/Getty ImagesKari Miller first participated in wheelchair basketball before switching to sitting volleyball.
Kari MillerAs an Army transportation management coordinator serving in Bosnia and Korea in the late 1990s, one of Kari Miller's duties was to organize MWR trips for visiting groups. MWR is the military's Morale, Welfare and Recreation program. It's fitting, then, that today Miller spends much of her time improving the morale, welfare and recreation of returning amputee veterans.
Miller's story was featured in an espnW piece last November, but in a nutshell, it is this: Shortly after returning home from Korea in 1999, Miller and three friends were driving to an IHOP for an early-morning breakfast when they were hit by a drunken driver. Her friend who was driving was killed. Miller was pinned between the car's dashboard and a roadside pole, and both her legs were amputated at the scene, one below the knee, one above. A lifelong athlete, Miller began playing wheelchair basketball a year after the accident then made the U.S. Paralympic team in sitting volleyball in 2006. She is currently the top libero, a defensive specialist, in the world.
Although Miller's injury did not occur during active duty, it happened shortly after she returned home from service and was adjusting to post-military life. Dealing with life as an amputee compounded her struggles, and she didn't want other veterans to feel as alone as she felt at times. As a Paralympic ambassador, Miller was traveling the country speaking to injured veterans when she realized there was no program in her own backyard. So she worked to start Paralympic military programs at Walter Reed and Bethesda medical centers in Maryland.
"Right after surgery, when the stitches are fresh, these guys think it's the end of the world," Miller said. "They don't think there's life after the military or after becoming an amputee. Then I come boppin' in with two missing legs and a gold medal and that gives them hope."
Through the program, Miller bops into the lives of new amputees who are struggling with adjusting to life with prosthetics or wheelchairs. She also helps to organize swimming, wheelchair basketball, kayaking, shooting and, of course, sitting volleyball programs. Then, she organizes inter- and intra-hospital tournaments. She also spends much of her time talking and, more often, just listening.
"In the military, everything operates differently. The way you talk to one another is different than how you talk to a civilian," she said. "We have shared experiences someone who hasn't been to war doesn't have. I understand why loud noises bother them, and they understand why I don't want to sit with my back to the door. So it's easier for them to talk to me."
And that, they do. Miller has learned that the first day she visits with a new amputee might be filled with tension and resistance from the family. But over time, she helps them to find programs that will help reintroduce them to interests they had before their accidents, and sometimes fall in love with new endeavors.
"There are a lot of programs out there, not just for sports, but educational programs, housing programs and programs for families," Miller said. "But they don't know that. I was left to figure it all out on my own after I got hurt and I don't want them to feel that way."
Miller believes her experience in the military, coupled with her experience as a double-amputee athlete -- here, she would remind you about her two gold medals -- makes her uniquely equipped to help her fellow veterans find new passions in life.
"I used to love running and basketball," Miller said. "I had no experience with volleyball, but what I love about this sport is that no matter how perfect you are as a player, the game never goes perfectly. You have to be ready and know what you're going to do with the ball before it comes, but you also have to react to whatever is thrown at you."
That message is what she hopes to pass on to the amputees she works with, believing one day they will share the sentiment with someone else in need. -- Alyssa Roenigk[+] EnlargeGetty ImagesGreta Niemanas currently rides for Exergy TWENTY12.
Greta NeimanasGreta Neimanas is ultra-competitive about everything, so she wasn't happy when one of the icons in her sport, Great Britain's Sarah Storey, signed a contract with a professional cycling team. "I wanted to be the first one, but she beat me to it,'' Neimanas said.
The first disabled female cyclist to sign with a top-tier team, that is.
Neimanas, born without a left arm below the elbow, became smitten with the speed and risk-taking of track cycling after earning a trip to the 2004 Paralympic Games by winning an essay contest. (For more on her background, click here.)
The Chicago native was already a multiple national champion and world championship medalist on the road and track when she sent her résumé to one of the top teams in the country a couple years ago but initially was told there was no space on the roster.
She eventually got a favorable response from that same team, now known as Exergy TWENTY12, a deep, talented squad led by 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. Neimanas, now based in the San Diego area, is in her second season as a full-fledged member of the team. She races locally on the road against able-bodied riders, as well as traveling internationally for Paralympic world cups.
Still, there's no shortcut to excellence, and Neimanas has had her ups and downs like every athlete. In a February entry on her blog, she wrote that she had "flateaued" a few months before and needed a change of scenery and coaching to recharge her motivation. Whatever she did, in conjunction with the vote of confidence and support from an elite team, clearly has worked.
Neimanas, 24, won a gold and two silver medals earlier this year at the Paralympic World Championships (in the scratch race, 3-kilometer pursuit and time trial, respectively), adding to her gold in the road race at last fall's Parapan American Games. She will compete in both track and road events at the upcoming Paralympics, which will be her second. -- Bonnie D. Ford[+] EnlargeMartin Hunter/Getty ImagesJeremy Campbell hopes to someday compete against able-bodied athletes.
Jeremy CampbellJeremy Campbell had been eyeing the record for years. No disabled athlete had ever thrown a discus 60 meters in competition and he desperately wanted to be the first. He had passed the mark countless times in training and just needed to do it when it counted. But in his first throw at last month's Triton Invitational in Southern California, Campbell's prosthetic leg cracked.
"If you break it mid-throw, it's not a fun experience," said Campbell, who was born without his right fibula. "Usually when it cracks is when it's time to back off."
But instead of heading home, Campbell, 24, did just the opposite. The 2008 Paralympic gold medalist in the pentathlon took a few practice throws and hopped up and down on the leg. With each jump, he heard the crack continue to spread. The broken leg was nothing new. Campbell's athletic training is so hard on his legs that his sponsor, Hangar Prosthetics, replaces them every two-to-three months. But a crack in the middle of competition was hardly ideal.
"I was going to pull out. I didn't want to risk an injury," Campbell said. "But at the same time it was like, 'Oh well, just go for it.'"
That's what he did. And as soon as he released his second throw, he knew it: 60.19 meters. The first disabled athlete to ever break the 60-meter barrier.
"And I didn't even catch it," he said. "That's what really excited me."
Campbell, whose older brother Jacob is a professional bull rider and other older brother Caleb is on the practice squad with the Kansas City Chiefs, is the favorite to win gold in London this September. But he's bummed he won't be competing in his original track and field event, the pentathlon. Campbell shattered a 16-year-old world record in Beijing by 400 points, but the sport will not be played in London because of a lack of competition.
Instead, the focus is on the discus and the goal of not only winning gold in London, but also competing against able-bodied athletes in the future. Though the Paralympics uses a 1.5-kilogram disc, Campbell often trains with the 2-kilogram disc used by able-bodied athletes. He's hopeful that someday he might even be able to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials, in which the provisional qualifying distance is 58 meters.
"I'm not far away," he said. "Who knows what the future might hold." -- Wayne Drehs
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