What Youth Athletes Can Learn from Paralympians
Every Paralympian has a story that can teach young athletes and adults about perseverance.
The Paralympic Games may not have the long history and tradition of the Olympics, but they are no less impactful on society.
The first Winter Paralympic Games took place in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. They were the first Paralympics featuring athletes other than those in wheelchairs.
Since then, the Paralympics have gained in popularity. Case in point: the Winter Paralympic Games Beijing 2022, which run March 4-13, will receive over 230 hours of broadcast and streaming coverage on NBC, its sister networks and the NBC Sports app. For the first time in Paralympic history, the network will feature several hours of prime time coverage.
The athletes who participate in the Paralympics come from all walks of life, just like Olympians. While I’ve never had the privilege of being a Paralympian, I have a disability and played numerous adaptive sports. I’ve also had the pleasure of talking with dozens of Paralympians recently for my work with Team USA. Like Olympic athletes, they each have a story to tell and a road they have taken to get an opportunity most of us will never have: compete for their country on one of the world’s biggest stages.
These athletes aren’t “different” or “amazing” because they can race on a snowboard, ski or play Para hockey at blazing speeds even though they are amputees or blind. They simply didn’t allow their disability to keep them from living an active, fulfilling life. They’ve worked just as hard as Olympic athletes have to get where they are. And they have been blessed with a physical talent that they chose to put to good use, just like any other athlete.
Here are the stories of three young Paralympians I’ve spoken with who are representing Team USA at the Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing. Their journeys may be different, but they each ended up at the same destination, and the perseverance they have shown should be a lesson for both young athletes and adults.
Lera Doederlein: Age 18, Para Nordic Skier
Lera was diagnosed at birth with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a severe condition that affects joints and muscles in the hips and legs. She was born in Russia, and doctors convinced her mother to put her up for adoption due to her disability.
Her mother agreed, and Lera was placed in an orphanage. The infant received little stimulation, no soothing words or the affection of a mother’s touch.
This went on for about 18 months. Then, along came David and Fami Doederlein, who had seen Lera on a VHS tape of Russian orphan children given to them by a friend. The Doederleins already had three children of their own, but they were captivated by Lera and decided to adopt her.
“She had bright eyes, she was very inquisitive and she was very aware of her surroundings,” David told the Los Angeles Times. “She was looking around and we noticed that when the nurse gave her a toy she looked at it, but when the nurse took the toy away, Lera (immediately) followed her as she walked away. Almost as if she wanted to say, ‘Where did my toy go?’”
Lera settled into her new home in San Diego. The condition in her legs caused her constant pain, so she and her family decided to amputate them both above the knee.
It was just what Lera needed. When her family briefly relocated to Arizona, she discovered sled hockey. She also became interested in Nordic skiing after befriending 10-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters. Since sled hockey is not currently a Paralympic sport for women, Lera began training for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski Team to go to Beijing.
Doederlein recalls taking to skiing quickly just as she did sled hockey.
“It was basically how things worked with sled hockey,” Doederlein told me during an interview for USA Hockey. “I got on the skis and I was like, ‘this is really fun’.”
Once Lera comes back from Beijing, she plans to resume playing for the San Diego Ducks, a local sled hockey team in conjunction with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. She also plays for the U.S. Women’s Development Team, and hopes the sport will become a part of the Paralympic Games for women.
Jesse Keefe: Age 17, Para Alpine Skier
Keefe is the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team. Born without an ankle bone, the Sun Valley, Idaho native had his right foot amputated when he was 11 months old.
Keefe was fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t believe in coddling him just because he had a disability. He was on skis as soon as he learned to walk, and began competing shortly thereafter.
Keefe has quite a sense of humor, often shocking his teachers by walking into class with his prosthetic foot on backwards or holding it up like a trophy following a ski race.
“I find it as kind of a funny thing,” Keefe told me in a story for Team USA. “I don’t see it as something to keep secret. I think of it as an open thing. All my friends joke about it, I joke about it.”
Keefe competed against able-bodied athletes in his early years, and eventually discovered Para skiing through the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). He also received training through the National Ability Center, where he qualified for the U.S. Team.
No matter how things turn out in Beijing, Keefe takes life in stride. His easygoing nature is obvious from the moment you meet him. He plans to finish his senior year of high school once he returns from the Paralympics, and is eyeing several colleges with the goal of majoring in aviation.
Katlyn Maddry: Age 20, Para Snowboarder
Maddry was born in Guangzhou, China, which is over a thousand miles from Beijing. Like Doederlein, she was abandoned to an orphanage after her parents discovered she had a disability.
Maddry had to wait six years before being adopted by Jim and LeAnn Maddry, and went to live in Wasilla, Alaska. She was born with Fibular Hemimelia, a condition that causes scoliosis. She had her right leg amputated at age eight, and took up snowboarding after being invited to an Alaskan ski resort when she was in fifth grade.
Snowboarding didn’t come naturally to Maddry, who recalled falling on a regular basis her first year in the sport. But she steadily improved, and made quite a splash in world cup competition this season. In her world championships debut, she placed fourth, and was very excited when she made the final roster to represent the U.S. Para Snowboarding Team in Beijing.
The significance of returning to the country where she was born is something Maddry is well aware of. But she has little memory of her early life in China. Her goal at the Paralympics is to do her best and enjoy the moment regardless of the results.
“I’m still really new to this,” she told me. “It’ll be awesome if (winning a medal) happens. But I’m going to soak in the whole experience, everything here.”
This year’s Paralympic Games will feature alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, snowboarding, sled hockey and wheelchair curling. Over 700 athletes will compete in 78 events including 39 for men, 35 for women and four mixed events.
You can see a full broadcast schedule of all events here.
Hot Takes and Great Reads
A 13-year-old Idaho boy would love to be one of those Paralympians one day.
Bowen Toomey was born without arms or legs. Ironically, he suffered the same fate as the above-mentioned athletes Lera Doederlein and Katlyn Maddry.
Born in Serbia, Toomey was put in an orphanage where he was eventually adopted by Jeremy and Devon Toomey.
Being born without limbs hasn’t stopped Bowen from taking on the Idaho slopes on a snowboard. His dream is to one day flash his skills at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Keep his name handy; we might be reading about him doing just that one day soon. See the full story here.
March is Women’s History Month, and Little League® is recognizing the occasion with their Girls with Game Initiative.
Each March and throughout the year, Little League honors girls and women who have made the program what it is today. Since being established in 2019, Girls with Game has done a great deal to inspire the next generation of female participants at all levels of sports.
Find out more about what communities are doing for this celebration by clicking here.
Last month, I profiled Justine Siegal and her Baseball for All organization, which aims to provide equality for girls across all levels of baseball. In case you missed it, you can check it out here.
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