Walking out onto the deck at my first-ever Paralympic swim meet, I was unsure of what exactly to expect. All I really knew about para-swimming back in 2012 was that athletes with all sorts of disabilities swam, and they swam fast. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to see so many prosthetic legs strewn about the deck, or bored-looking guide dogs waiting patiently for their owners to get out of the pool. This environment was a bit of a shock initially, but it actually put me at ease. Suddenly, my mild limp actually made me fit in, rather than stand out. As I hesitantly sat down with a group of swimmers, the first thing someone said to me was, “Hey, so, what’s wrong with you?” After months of friends and family delicately asking about my recovery, it was a blunt, though refreshing, remark. “Uh, I fell out of a window, broke my back, and have a spinal cord injury.” Should I ask what’s wrong with him? How does this etiquette work? “Cool,” he replied. “I lost most of my vision when I was 17. What events are you swimming today?”
Right then and there, I knew I was where I belonged. For the past year, my injury and recovery had been the most pressing, most important thing about me. It was all anyone really wanted to talk about. If you’re going through a traumatic injury, I’m sure you can relate. Suddenly, I found myself in a situation where my disability was just a small aspect of my larger identity as an athlete. My new teammates all had disabilities themselves, so my own issues weren’t so notable. Everyone on that pool deck had their own share of struggles and consequently, strengths. These athletes were not only dealing with the everyday challenges that disabilities add to life, but they also were training to become the best in the world.
April is Adaptive Sports Awareness Month. Many people think of sports played in a wheelchair (like rugby or basketball) when they hear ‘adaptive sports,’ but the field, also called para-sports, simply refers to athletic events for people with disabilities. Some require special equipment, like running legs or racing wheelchairs, but in swimming, athletes compete without prosthetics or other assistive devices. Some modifications, such as tappers to let blind swimmers know when they have reached the end of the lane, are used, but the general rules are the same as for able-bodied swimming.
I truly became hooked on adaptive sports later that day when I won my race: the 50 meter freestyle. After an entire year of coming in last during every single practice and competition with the Division 1 swim team at Georgetown University, I finally touched the wall first. Honestly, I had began to get used to always being last. I was so shocked by this win that I double-checked the results to make sure I had seen it right! I was elated, and my confidence skyrocketed. I realized it wasn’t really fair to compare my abilities as someone with a permanent impairment to those of able-bodied athletes. When the competition is other swimmers with disabilities, we’re on an even playing field. Paralympic swimmers compete in classifications against other athletes with disabilities of similar severity, so what sets the winners apart is their athletic talent.
This realization pushed me to focus on what my new body was capable of, rather than dwelling on the things that I struggle with. Sure, my legs didn’t work that well, but look at how well my upper body was powering me through the water! Of course, I still continued to utilize and strengthen my lower body as much as possible, but I had a new-found appreciation for the skills my body did well.
While my adaptive sports journey is (hopefully!) taking me to the pinnacle of disability sports, the Paralympic Games, there are so many benefits to getting involved, even if your aspirations are not to become a professional athlete. Besides connecting with other athletes with disabilities and giving me confidence in my own abilities, adaptive sports helped me regain my identity. I was an athlete again, and for others with disabilities, participating in adaptive sports, regardless of the level of competition, proves that you can become an athlete, too! Many of my Paralympic teammates had never swam or even competed in sports at all until injuries or illnesses left them with disabilities. It is incredible to see them use this new chapter of their lives for a purpose they never would have imagined.
To learn more about Magee’s Wheelchair Sports Program, click here.
Road to Rio is a monthly blog series written by Paralympic swimmer and former Magee patient Michelle Konkoly as she prepares for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Photo: Michelle (second from left) with fellow Paralympic swimmers
Courtesy: Michelle Konkoly