Pursuing Excellence in Parallel: World Class Paralympic Athletes
Like all runners, the athletes of the Paralympics overcome obstacles to reach the top — they just have different challenges.
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The Tokyo Summer Paralympics includes 22 sports, including track and field and triathlon. Track events range from the 100m to 5,000m, plus a road marathon, and begin on the morning of August 27 (Tokyo time – Thursday evening in the U.S.). Triathlon events will be run on August 28 (Tokyo a.m., Friday night p.m. in the U.S.)
Runners in the Paralympics are world-class athletes (in Rio, for example, four visually-impaired 1500m runners ran faster than Matt Centrowitz did to win Olympic gold). But Paralympics have challenges that Olympians generally don’t.
One of those athletes is Dani Aravich, who ran Division 1 track and cross-country at Butler University. She is running the 400m in the T47 classification, which includes athletes with upper-limb impairment on one side.
Aravich was born without her left hand and forearm. At the Paralympic Trials, she ran a 1:02.84.
“Since my category of Paralympic track has an arm impairment, we are most impacted by the imbalances of our body,” Aravich explains. “There is a lot of wasted energy, since our chest rotates due to the weight imbalance, and sprinting involves quite a bit of arm swing.”
Aravich grew up playing soccer and then started running in high school. “I had early success in the sport and was recruited by colleges to run,” she says. “I started running competitively again two years after graduating from college, when someone reached out to me about looking into competing in the Paralympics.”
Aravich has volunteered to coach limb-different kids through the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which has supported her athletic career. She now volunteers for NubAbility Athletics as a coach. “I love seeing kids who are also amputees excel in sports,” she says.
She is also an adaptive model. “I never really grew up knowing anyone with disabilities…. I have learned how to accept and understand other people’s disabilities,” Aravich says. “I see how much work the world has to do to be more accepting of people with disabilities.”
Aravich’s 400m event is Saturday, August 28. “I am nervous yet excited — this will be the biggest track race of my life,” Aravich says.
As soon as the Summer Paralympics are over, though, Aravich will shift her focus to qualifying for the Beijing Winter Paralympics in Nordic skiing and biathlon.
Challenges You Likely Don’t Have to Consider
The International Paralympic Committee classifies athletes based on impairment, which includes various types of physical impairment, vision impairment, and certain types of intellectual impairment. For example, different classifications for lower-limb amputees include double amputees, single-limb amputees, with amputations below the knee and above the knee. And athletes with different degrees of vision impairment have designated classifications.
“For track and field in the Paralympics, there is a variety of categories based on the impairment to ensure equal play, and you only compete against those with the same disability,” Aravich explains.
Para athletes negotiate challenges in their training that their counterparts without impairments might not face. For example, while the pandemic cancelled races and complicated training for everyone, blind runners who need to run with guides had extra challenges figuring out how to train safely within social distancing mandates.
Amy Dixon lost 98% of her vision because of a rare autoimmune disorder. She became a triathlete after losing her vision and has won several international paratriathlon competitions, and she was the first blind female athlete to compete in an XTERRA race. In 2017, she founded Camp ‘No Sight No Limits’ for elite blind triathletes in San Diego. She also serves as a patient advocate.
During the triathlon, Dixon swims, bikes, and runs with a guide. Although she’s an experienced international competitor, this will be her first Paralympics, at age 45. Her classification is PTVI. She competes on Saturday, August 28.
Lower-limb amputees who run on specialized running blades need to overcome the initial problem of getting the blade — they cost $15,000 or more each, and health insurance generally does not cover them, because sports-specific prostheses are considered not medically necessary. Nonprofits like CAF have stepped in to fill this gap, and the foundation has provided many of the Tokyo Team USA Paralympians with their running prostheses and other support they need.
An amputee who uses a prosthesis has to work closely with a prosthetist to make sure it’s properly fit and continuously adjusted for their body, gait, and running event. If it’s not, it can fall off. “They are fit specifically to you. It’s not like you’re going and getting a size nine in shoes,” says Bob Babbitt, cofounder of CAF. He added that if you gain or lose weight, your leg volume changes, which also changes the fit of the prosthesis.
Femita Ayanbeku aims to become the fastest female amputee in the world. At the Paralympic trials, she ran the 100m in 12.84, breaking the American record for her classification (T64, for athletes with a single below-the-knee amputation and who run with a prosthesis).
When Ayanbeku was 11, she was in a car accident and needed to have her right leg amputated below the knee. She attended a CAF running and mobility clinic in 2015, received her first running prosthesis, and quickly started to excel at sprinting. This is her second Paralympics — she also ran the 200m at Rio in 2016.
Ayanbeku founded the nonprofit Limb-it-Less Creations Inc. to support the amputee community and others with physical disabilities, and she’s also a certified personal trainer. She is running the 100m on Sept. 3.
The word “Paralympic” comes from combining the Greek “para,” meaning beside or alongside, with “Olympic,” so the Paralympics run in parallel to the Olympics.
Involvement in sports boosts self-esteem, encourages independence, and enhances quality of life — for both elite and everyday athletes. CAF helps people with physical challenges pursue sports and active lifestyles.
In 2017, Hunter Woodhall became the first double amputee to earn a Division 1 scholarship for track and field. “That changed everything,” Babbitt says. “All these other kids out there were like, ‘Well, wait a second, this guy got a scholarship. Why can’t I get a scholarship?’”
Woodhall ran for the University of Arkansas and turned pro earlier this year. At the Rio Paralympics, he won a silver medal in the 200m and bronze in the 400m. At Tokyo, he is running the 100m and the 400m, in the T62 classification.
He was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that keeps the legs from developing properly, and he had his legs amputated below the knee when he was a baby. CAF has helped support Woodhall, who has volunteered at some CAF events, sometimes with his girlfriend, Olympian Tara Davis. At an adaptive surfing clinic that Woodhall attended, Babbitt recalls, “All these amputee kids — doubles and singles — came running over and knew every time he’d ever run.”
Representation matters. A child with a physical challenge might not see anyone in their hometown with a prosthesis or a wheelchair. The Paralympians show what’s possible.
Many amputees were initially told they’d never walk or run again, and they never thought they could become elite athletes. CAF athletes know this, Babbitt says. Especially on a stage as big as the Paralympics, they know that kids with disabilities are at home watching, and thinking, “Wait a second. I can do that. If he can do that, I can do that,” he says. “Our kids understand more than anybody that their role is to help the next kid.”
And times have changed, Babbitt says. “If somebody who’s my age was missing a limb, you would hide it, you’d wear long pants, you would never show people,” he says. “The kids now, they’ve got Batman logos on their leg.” One girl told him that her prosthetic leg makes her different in a good way, because she stands out.
Some “firsts” in recent years have brought para athletes closer in line to their fellow athletes without impairments. The U.S. Olympic Committee became the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in 2019. In the Paralympics, medalists will now receive the same payments that Olympic medalists receive. For every athlete named to the U.S. Paralympic Team this year, Toyota offered sponsorship opportunities.
The Boston Marathon in October will be the first time any of the World Majors has included a separate competitive para athletics division for ambulatory para athletes that recognizes their achievements. Wheelchair racers have had a separate division, but runners who have prosthetic limbs or impaired vision have not.
The wheelchair racers have become stars. Rio Olympian Daniel Romanchuk won the men’s Boston Marathon wheelchair division in 2019. In Tokyo, he’ll be racing in the 800m, 1,500m, and 5,000m in the T54 division.
Tatyana McFadden has won Boston’s wheelchair division five times, as well as multiple victories in the Chicago, New York, and London marathons. She has competed at five previous winter and summer Paralympic Games, winning 17 Paralympic medals to her name, including seven golds. In Tokyo, she’ll be racing in the marathon and the 400m, 800m, 1,500m, and 5,000m.
“Seeing what grace our athletes bring to the table, rather than being, ‘Poor me, and I can’t believe this happened to me…’ to ‘I’m just going to go out and have the best life possible,” Babbitt says. “That, to me, is what the Paralympics is a celebration of — every one of these folks who’s there has overcome something pretty major.”
About the Author
Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. You can visit her writing portfolio here. She currently serves as a co-lead of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition‘s Media Subgroup.