What the Paralympics Can Teach You About Getting Fit

This is a guest post by Dale Churchett.  Dale is a former client. What he has to say about the Paralympics is a MUST read.

Enter Dale

Dale Churchett

On July 6th 2005 the IOC announced London would be the host city for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Even better news for me was that the Olympic Park would be built 30 minutes from where I grew up. London 2012 was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event and my family and I were going to go come what may.

We planned our trip, got tickets, and our Olympic games were fantastic. We attended Boxing, Fencing, Football, Athletics and Taekwando. We watched the superb TV live coverage by the BBC and joined the whole of Great Britain in cheering on our own athletes, and those from around that world that came to our country to compete. The noise levels in the stadium would drown out that of a Boeing 777 as we saw amazing feats from Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis, Usain Bolt, our Rowers, Gymnasts and Cyclists to name but a few. Suffice to say, the Olympic games were incredible and we soaked up every second of it.

There were were some venues we could not get tickets and I really wanted to visit those venues.

Consequently, I applied for Paralympic tickets and booked a trip back to London two weeks after the Olympic Games had ended. As I headed back to London I had no clue what to expect but was very excited. I had been successful in acquiring tickets for the Aquatics Center and the Athletics (four sessions in all). I freely admit I had some reservations about the Paralympics and primarily went to see the venues.

How wrong I could have been now amazes me.

The Wonder of the Paralympics

My first session was for the very first Swimming heats in the Aquatics Center; the place where Michael Phelps had recently become the most successful Olympian ever. Would the crowds be the same? Would the atmosphere in the Olympic Park be the same? Would attendance be the same?

I can tell you an emphatic ‘yes’ to all these questions. The Olympic Park was buzzing with anticipation for the first day. The sea of people flocking into the park was awe-inspiring and I walked with a huge smile on my face into the venue.

Still not knowing what to expect, but enjoying the atmosphere greatly, I was genuinely shocked to see the S6 category competitors come out ready for the first heats of Breaststroke, Backstroke and Freestyle. The S6 category contains the most disabled swimmers whose impairments impact their ability to push water effectively the most.

The first swimmer I saw had no arms. The second had no legs below the knee and the third suffered from Dwarfism and only had one leg! I shifted somewhat uncomfortably in my seat, as I’d not seen this level of disability on that scale in person. Sitting there before the starters gun I had a pivotal thought – it went something like this:

It occurred to me that if I have a negative reaction to seeing someone 4 feet high with only one leg, it’s likely a pre-programmed thought and once I stumbled onto this, I could quickly forgive myself and move past it. Once that was done I was free to accept what-is and then focus on what the athletes are doing.

With this epiphany, the penny dropped. What I was watching were Elite Athletes with as much training behind them, as much determination, as much competitiveness and will to win as any Olympian I had seen two weeks prior.

The difference is, the Paralympic athletes cannot compete on a level playing field, and that is why the Paralympics evolved the category system in place today. Oh, I get it!

From then on I simply marveled at the sport, the competition, the human spirit and endeavor the competitors revealed to us all watching. I moved from thinking ‘Poor bloke, that must be awful’ to ‘Wow, that was an awesome race! Check that out!’

Over the next ten days I attended a Paralympic event on seven days out of the ten. I picked up tickets to the evening sessions at the ExCel center and watched Wheelchair Fencing, Sitting Volleyball, Table Tennis, and Powerlifting. I am so proud to say the British public purchased every single ticket on offer – a record 2.7 million tickets! Every venue was full, the noise levels were incredible, the generosity towards other nations was humbling and yes, the sport was immense!

But there is some sad news in all of this.

The UK TV aired over 400 hours of live coverage of the Paralympics, and over 600 hours of catch up, documentaries, human interest and general news stories for the event. Great Britain’s population watched, cheered, absorbed, delighted, and was changed as a result. “People broke out in spontaneous conversation on the tube”, as the Mayor of London told us after the Athletes Parade through the streets of London attended by 1 million people (myself included).

The US TV Coverage however, came to Zero Minutes of Live Coverage and a 90-minute ‘Highlights’ show at the end of the day. I saw first hand how a generation’s attitude was changed, and the wasted opportunity here in the US is truly shameful.

If seeing the Olympics in my hometown inspired me, the Paralympics changed me. I now realize what the words of Oscar Pistorius mean when he said, “Focus on what the athletes can do, not what they can’t do”.

What This Means To You

And applying this to your own life, that statement can be abstracted to say:

“Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do”.

Why did I want to send this article to Doug? To make some sports loving people aware of the event that just happened in London, and to hopefully inspire some of them to look on YouTube.

Search for Paralympics London 2012 and watch something, anything. Blind 5-a-Side Football, the 100m Final for S44 (single leg amputee World Record 10.9 seconds), the 100m Final for T12 Visual Impairment (World Record 10.2 seconds), Wheelchair Racing, Hand Cycling, anything at the Velodrome, Blind Triple Jumpers, Double-amputee Javelin/Shot Put or Discus, Boccia, Powerlifting, Wheelchair Sabre/Epee Fencing.

Think about the ingenious ways the athletes have come up with in order to compete and the challenges that may not at first strike you.

  • How do you pace yourself when swimming in a race where you cannot see the person in the lane next to you?
  • How do you know when to turn if you are blind and swimming backstroke? How do you ‘take your marks’ when you have no arm below the elbow?
  • How do you start a bike from a stationary position with only one leg and reach speeds of 40 mph?
  •  How do you serve in Table Tennis with only one hand?

The image that will forever stay with me is that of Richard Whitehead winning the 200m final for double above-the-knee amputees. Whitehead is the world record holder for the Marathon in the T42 category (2 hours 42 minutes!). He was told he could not compete in London 2012 because the marathon was not included for his category. So he learned how to sprint instead. And just marvel at what he did!

And, check out this slide show: click here

So when you are going through rehab from an injury, or just trying to get fit, focus on what you can do, not what you can’t and you may be amazed by what you can achieve.

Dale Churchett

Violamarie says

Great article. Such a shame the US didn’t cover the paralympics. Far be it from us to show anyone who isn’t “perfect” on TV… Unless of course we’re exploiting them on a reality show.

Heather says

I am so glad you wrote this. I was glued to the TV during the olympics and was really hoping to be the same during the paralympics… except that there was nothing to watch as it wasn’t broadcast here. And as an injury riddled person (at the moment) you are so right about focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t… which is a very hard thing to do at first..

    DD Kelsey says

    Dale did a great job with this post, I agree.
    And about focusing on what you can do being hard at first, yes, it is. And while it seems to get a bit easier over time, I don’t think it’s ever easy. Hang in there.

    Dale says

    Thanks so much for leaving a comment. There are some good YouTube channels for the Paralympics (if you can live with the adverts), but it is worth the effort. I’m using what I learnt with my current rehab. I had been avoiding swimming as I couldn’t do the 20 lengths I wanted, but I *can* do five or six, so that’s where I’m at – and it definitely is not easy to keep to that, but my resolve is stronger now then it was before London 2012.

Omar Zia says

Thanks for the post. I know a paralympian. Mark Zupan lives here in Austin and was on the 2004 and 2008 Wheelchair Rugby teams. Gold in 2008. If you get a chance to watch Murderball, you can get some insight into what these folks are doing and what they are up against.

It sometimes takes different perspectives to figure out what you can and can’t do. Up until last year, I thought I might never run or hike or play tennis again because of a cyst in my foot. But a physiatrist showed me how I had a flexibility issue on one side of my body and that if I worked on it, I could reduce the pain I felt as a reaction in my foot. And here I thought a scary surgery was my only option…

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