Legend has it that an Aussie medallist at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, asked by a journalist if he’d always wanted to be a Paralympian, responded: “Not when I could @#$%ing walk.”
Urban myth or otherwise, it’s a story that highlights not just the dim-wittedness of some journos but the particular challenges Paralympic athletes face before even turning their minds to elite sport.
Talk of blood, sweat and tears on the sporting field becomes trite when you discover more than 20 per cent of the US team at Sochi has done battle of the mortal kind in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Terms like ‘putting their bodies on the line’ apply literally to Taylor Lipsett (that’s him wearing No 7), whose brittle bones have broken more than 100 times, yet who has fronted up for three Paralympics in that gentleman’s sport of sled hockey.
The words ‘guts’ and ‘ticker’ barely do justice to Trent Milton who, just three years since injuring body and brain in a motorbike accident, has represented his country in Paralympic snowboarding. Or Christian Geiger, a skier on the verge of selection for the Vancouver Olympics who had to learn to walk, talk and eat again after a car accident and now guides vision-impaired skier Jessica Gallagher down the slopes, to bronze as it happens.
And then there’s Aussie teenager Ben Tudhope (pictured above), at 14 the youngest competitor in Sochi, whose cerebral palsy has partially paralysed the left side of his body. Ben, who finished 10th in Sochi and is enthusiasm personified, is talked about as a snowboarding superstar of the future.
In much the same way Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels, Winter Paralympians sign up for the same stuff as their able-bodied counterparts but with missing limbs, partial sight or less than total control of their bodies.
The risks are no less. The Australian team has competed at these Games just weeks after the death of para-snowboarding teammate Matthew Robinson after a race crash in Spain. He has never been far from their thoughts, a banner with the words “We ride for Matty” fashioned in his honour and given pride of place on the snowboarding hill.
With two bronze medals to our tally, it’s been Australia’s least successful Winter Paralympics since Innsbruck in 1988. In the context of things, that hardly seems to matter.
Our first Sochi medallist, Toby Kane (in action above), who also won bronze eight years ago in Torino, picked up arguably a bigger prize, the first Australian to win the Paralympics Games’ top award, bestowed on one male and one female for embodying the Paralympic spirit.
It’s too easy — and a bit Hallmarky — to say these athletes are inspirational. They’re superhuman. As for the rest of us, that thing that needs doing around the house? That gym class we’ve been meaning to take? That assignment we’ve been putting off? Well, we’re fresh out of excuses.