Archers with Disabilities, or
The Severely Inconvenienced

 
by Lindsey Carmichael, Paralympian Archer 

"Disabled is such a strong term," Thomas told me once. I can remember the way he shook his head as he glanced down the sidewalk to find a curb cut. A three-time veteran of The Games, he was our team's resident quadriplegic and one of the most driven and optimistic people I have had the pleasure of meeting. "You know what we are?" he asked. He flipped his chair back, balancing on two wheels, and jumped the half-foot of concrete. "We are the severely inconvenienced."

At the time I just laughed (and followed him through the cut, easily maneuvering …..), but the wisdom of his lighthearted statement stayed with me through the duration of the trip. The idea that all of the hardships, embarrassments, and aggravations which we all encountered on a day-today basis could possibly be summed up with a flippant "inconvenient" was a ludicrous concept-but it worked so well.

If you were to ask, most disabled persons will tell you that there is absolutely nothing more frustrating or disorienting than having your life turned upside down by a catastrophic accident. And there is nothing absolutely more isolating to a child or adolescent than being born with the wrong sort of body.

Truly, however, the most difficult aspect of living with a disability is keeping yourself from thinking about how your life would be better or more convenient-if only you were able-bodied. It is a question that arises from time to time, when a friend enlists, when a young couple walks past hand-in-hand. Flights of stairs make excellent reminders, as do airplane trips and movie theaters.

"You're just looking at it in the wrong way," Thomas would probably tell me. "That's no way to live your life, always wishing for abilities and opportunities you'll never have. Talk about a waste of energy." And here I can imagine him grinning-the same grin he wore when they presented him with the medalists' olive branch wreath. He might lean forward, placing one callused hand on the table. "Honey, just look at the opportunities this has given you! For crying out loud, we're in Athens."

That is what he would have said five months ago, anyway. It's hard to believe time has passed at all since the night when we waited with the ten thousand people gathered in the monolithic Oaka Stadium to cheer as the Olympic flame flared one last time against the night sky of Greece.

He would be right, of course. Without my disability I wouldn't have traveled with him and the rest of my team to represent the United States in the second-largest sporting event in the world. I would not have been given the chance to compete with the best of the best in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. I would not have flown to Spain or France for the World Championships, would not know the first thing about competition on an international level. I would not even have found archery if I hadn't been so frustrated with my disability when I was young. It was that same frustration that drove me to find something I could do without running, jumping, or knocking other kids down. Not an option for a young girl with weak bones. So instead, I took up archery. I started off small, as everyone does; but after seven and a half years, I go for something a little more challenging.

Today, I shoot professional target archery from seventy meters-a task which I once heard an archer at the San Diego Olympic Training Center describe as "standing on the 76th yard line and trying to hit an apple tied to the goalpost."

I do it for score, for the challenge, for the exhilaration of competition, and for the respect I can earn with my hard-won ability. And in four years, when I set my sights on Beijing, I will be doing it for yet another reason: in my two decades on this Earth, never have I felt such camaraderie as I experienced at the Paralympics. Never have I been given the opportunity to meet such extraordinary individuals.

On my fourth day in Greece, I wrote home to my friends:

"This place is crazy. Amazing. The Athlete's Village is like a small college campus-a college where every student has some sort of disability. In the past few days I have probably seen every form of disability in the world. A few moments ago, I played cards with a blind cyclist… In a couple of days, I don't even blink when shaking hands with a prosthetic hook, barely even notice when someone's limbs don't look as they should.

"It's such an open environment, too. Since there's such a wide range of disabilities, there is a high level of acceptance. No one is amazed when someone in a wheelchair stands up and hobbles a few feet to get something they dropped. No one is disturbed when an amputee crutches up to the lunch table and detaches one of their prosthetic limbs to lay it by their lunch tray. If you come across a blind person in the mess hall feeling their way around, you describe the food in front of them, maybe the layout of the tables. Everyone helps, everyone does what they can because they know what it's like, and that's amazing."

Soldiers and veterans share a similar bond, the kind that only forms between those who have experienced something so far removed from normal life that they can cope with it only by becoming stronger and relying on others who have been through the same ordeal.

And while many of the athletes competing at the Paralympics are veterans wounded in action-in the case of nations such as Turkey and Iran, nearly all of the competitors fit under this category-the atmosphere of The Games is based on something else entirely: acceptance. Being quadriplegic is out of the ordinary on a street corner in Milwaukee. Being quadriplegic on a street corner in the Paralympic Village, however, is about as unusual as finding a freckled redhead in Dublin. Asking someone about their disability takes on the blasé air of inquiring about the major of a university student. Amusingly, the able-bodied coaches and aides become the ones who stick out in a crowd.

Josh Blue is an athlete with Cerebral Palsy, who, when he's not playing soccer, can be found cracking jokes on stage in Denver where he makes his living as a stand-up comedian. He was kind enough to do one of his routines one evening for a small but enthusiastic crowd in the US Athlete Lounge area. "Who here takes public transport back home?" he asked us. There was a half-hearted cheer and he nodded in response. "Do any of you ever notice how there's always at least one weirdo on the bus? Just that one guy who looks kind of… off. When he gets on, mothers kind of hide their kids and the driver gives that little sigh, as if to say, 'not again!'" He paused for a moment, and the irony of his next statement was not lost on a single person present. "Well, took me a few months to figure it out, actually. I was the weirdo! How 'bout that!"

Truly, the entire month-long event is a study in psychology and social dynamics. To take such a group of people and throw them all together in close quarters to compete, to struggle, to succeed or submit-I cannot think of a more worthy event in the history of humanity. Not even the Olympics themselves can compare.

The story of an Olympian is that of a person becoming an athlete. It's a worthy tale to be told, and in this day and age one of the last bastions of true respect and honor to be found in western society. No one would begrudge an Olympian the tribute he or she has earned through their hard work and determination. But the story of a Paralympian is that of a person being broken, of a person searching their soul to find the necessary strength to overcome that which fate has thrown at them, of a person then striving and fighting with a determination unlike anything ever seen in modern professional sports.

It's not that Marlon Shirley, track star of the American Paralympic movement, set the world record in the 100 meter dash. It's that Marlon Shirley set the world record in the 100 meter dash with one leg. How many top cyclists do you know who could medal at one of the biggest cycling events in the country-the USCF Elite National Championship? How many do you know who could do it blind? Matt King can; he's been a devoted cyclist most of his life, despite the debilitating retinitis pigmentosa he was born with.

This is the spirit of the Paralympic Games, perhaps the only thing that would lead (ME) myself and thousands of others to devote four, eight, sometimes twelve or more years of our lives to hard training. Sure, when the plane landed in Washington (DC) and we all went our respective ways, not everyone was returning home to ticker-tape parades or million-dollar Nike sponsorships. For most, life returns to normal. Some go back to being the bus route's resident weirdo. Others, like Thomas, return to their motivational speaking circuits.

Even when the four-year journey is over, though, you know you've taken something with you. More than souvenirs or memories or even medals-the athlete lucky enough to compete with the best of the best in the world of disabled sports is bound to come away with an entirely different outlook on life.

The night before Opening Ceremonies, I found myself having dinner with the United States' Wheelchair Rugby Team. They were a rough-and-tumble sort of group, with dented wheelchairs and slightly mangled fingers-the battle scars of their sport, endearingly nicknamed murder-ball. They got in trouble most nights for staying up too late playing poker in the Athlete Lounge. "You excited?" one of them asked me. While he might have been referring to my upcoming competition, I knew exactly what he was asking. After all, the Opening Ceremonies had been on everyone's mind for days and the entire Village seemed to be buzzing with anticipation. "Of course," I replied. "Well, good. You should be," he returned with a wolfish grin.

For a moment his eyes lit up and his face took on the light of someone reliving a religious experience. "You know that moment, when you walk into the stadium? The tunnel is usually dark, and everyone's just sitting there, nervous as all hell. Then they call your country and everyone's moving out into the light. And when you look up and the crowd is all around you, thousands and thousands of people cheering and shouting and stomping their feet… you can feel the roar in your bones." His teammates were nodding.

"That moment… It's a life-changing experience," he said.

"What part of all this isn't life-changing?" I had to ask.

"When you find it," he said, "let me know."
 

This article is copyright by Lindsey Carmichael, 2006.   All rights are reserved and this may not be reprinted or used without express consent by Lindsey Carmichael.