SPORTS

Willing and able

Athletes with disabilities compete in Barcelona

MARY NEMETH September 7 1992
SPORTS

Willing and able

Athletes with disabilities compete in Barcelona

MARY NEMETH September 7 1992

Willing and able

SPORTS

Athletes with disabilities compete in Barcelona

Stephen Brooks can hear the traffic whizzing past him on Highway 4. But he cannot see even a glimmer of the late-summer sun as he runs along the edge of the road, past neatly manicured lawns on the outskirts of St. Thomas, in southwestern Ontario. Running beside and slightly behind the 41-year-old blind racer, matching each long stride in perfect rhythm, is Brooks’s coach and guide, Bud Willis. The runners, holding the ends of a 12-inch tether, were putting in one of their last hard training sessions before the Paralympic Games begin this week in Barcelona. There, Brooks, with Willis as his guide, will race the 5,000 m and, his specialty, the marathon—on the same gruelling course that exhausted many of the top able-bodied runners at this summer’s Olympic Games. “The marathon is going to be a strength race, not a speed race,” says Willis after their run. “The person

who will endure mentally and physically is going to walk away with the gold medal.”

The premier event for elite athletes with physical disabilities, the Paralympics has grown dramatically since the first Games in Rome in 1960, where 400 athletes represented 23 countries. In Barcelona, an estimated 3,100 competitors—those with cerebral palsy, the blind and visually impaired, paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees and others—from 96 countries will march or wheel into Montjuic Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies on Sept. 3. They will compete, according to functional abilities, in 15 sports over 10 days.

In most cases, the games feature the same competitions, and the same venues, as in the Olympics, although some sports, like wheelchair basketball and tandem cycling, where a blind cyclist pedals with a sighted athlete, are modified. As more people with disabilities join athlet-

ics, Paralympic competition is intensifying. Already, some performances have come remarkably close to those at able-bodied events. In 1981, Arnold Boldt of Thompson, Man., whose right leg was amputated above the knee after a childhood farming accident, set a world highjump record in his class at 2.04 m—not far off the 2.44 m able-bodied record.

Still, some Paralympians express frustration with comparisons to able-bodied athletes and with the lack of media coverage of their events. Ken Read, a former Olympic skier and a vicepresident of the Canadian Olympic Association, notes that a top male athlete can run the 100-m sprint faster than a woman. “But we really are comparing apples to oranges,” he says, “and we should have as much appreciation for apples as oranges.” The same applies to athletes with disabilities, he says. And both the Paralympics and Olympic Games offer role models. “They are people striving for excellence,” says Read. “In both cases, these are the best people who have risen to the top.”

Brooks, a silver medallist in the marathon at the 1990 world championships for athletes with disabilities, is one of Canada’s top contenders. But the 143-member Canadian team includes a host of other medal hopefuls, as well. They include Joanne Bouw of St. Catharines, Ont., who has cerebral palsy, a gold-medal winner in discus, shot put and javelin at the last Paralympics in Seoul in 1988; world-champion swimmer Joanne Mucz of Winnipeg, who is without feet and ankles; and wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc of St-Marc-des-Carrières, Que. The team gets $330,000 from the federal government to go to Barcelona, about half the total cost. The rest comes from fund-raising and the athletes themselves. They will be seeking to do at least as well as Canada did in Seoul, where it finished fourth among 62 nations with 159 medals. That success, says Patricia Heydon, director of operations for the Canadian Paralympic team, is due in part to advances in wheelchair and prosthetic technology in North America. In Canada, she adds, “people are slowly coming around to accepting that disabled people can be athletes.”

Brooks, a native of St. Thomas, was bom with only partial sight due to congenital cataracts. He saw well enough to guide blind runners at track meets at what was then the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont., where he spent Grades 1 through 12. But in 1977, he began to suffer from glaucoma, and within six months, he lost his sight completely. “There’s a big difference between partial sight and no sight,” he says. “I used to lie awake at night and think, ‘What do I do with my life?’ ” At first, Brooks was afraid even to leave the white bungalow in St. Thomas that he shares with his mother, Ruth. “I took a white cane and walked halfway down the driveway,” he says. “I knew I was nowhere near the road, yet it sounded like the vehicles were coming right at me. I ran back to the house.” Brooks persevered. “I’d force myself to stand in the driveway and listen to the vehicles. I’d get a little bit closer to the sidewalk, a little bit closer, and eventually I’d stand on the sidewalk and walk.” Brooks returned to the University of Waterloo, where he studied economics, and, over time, built up his confidence to run again. He placed an ad in the student newspaper for guides, who took him running occasionally. Then, when he returned to St. Thomas in 1988, he joined a running club and later teamed up with Willis, a Grade 6 teacher and marathoner. “It’s a dependent sport,” says Willis, now 43. “Other blind athletes would say that Steve was exceptionally lucky to find guides to go out every day and adhere to a training regimen just like an able-bodied person.” Brooks, who receives a provincial disability pension of $701 a month, runs at least an hour a day. And although he hopes to place well in the 5,000-m race, most of his training has been geared to the marathon.

“Ideally,” says Brooks, “I’d like to run myself into the ground so hard that I need someone to hold me up when I cross the finish line.”

Unlike Brooks, Joanne Bouw did not take physical education in high school. With cerebral palsy causing muscular unco-ordination on the right side of her body, she says, she did not think she could do very well. But the 29-year-old pharmacist has made up for lost time. She joined an athletics club 11 years ago, and has been training ever since. Bouw is the world-record holder in shot put, javelin and discus in the C7 class—athletes with cerebral palsy are classified from Cl, the most severely disabled, to C8, the least.

Bouw trains two to three hours, six days a week. That includes weights—benchpressing up to 170 lb.—and throwing practice along with fellow athlete Richard Gronman, 28,—who also has cerebral palsy. Bouw says that she is aiming to break her own records at what will likely be her last competition, but that she will remain involved in sports after Barcelona, at least as a spokesman. “I’d like to let kids who have a disability know there is a sports option,” she says. “The possibilities are endless. A lot of people still think otherwise, but attitudes have changed a lot.”

Still, says Gronman, some people do ask irritating questions. Often, he says, someone will want to know how far he can throw the shot put—he has thrown 12.66 m, a Canadian record for men’s C7 class. “Then they say, but what does a regular person throw?” Adds Gronman: “It’s hard when someone asks that. The able-bodied world record is around 22 m. If you put it that way, yeah, we're throwing a lot less. But you can’t really compare.”

Attitudes aside, many athletes must learn to adapt athletic skills to their own abilities. Joanne Mucz was bom without ankles and feet. But her parents took her swimming when she was three years old, and, six years later, when she joined the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg, her first coach helped her develop a smooth stroke. Within a year, she began competing at meets for swimmers with disabilities. The 20year-old University of Manitoba commerce student now holds world records in six events.

In Barcelona, under a complex classification system that groups swimmers with comparable disabilities, Mucz will compete in a level 9

class—on a scale from 1, the most disabled, to 10, the least—in the 50-m, 100-m, and 400-m freestyle, the 100-m butterfly, 200-m individual medley and in two relays. She will also compete in the 8 class for the 100-m breaststroke. Most of Mucz’s competitors have one leg amputated above the knee or one arm below the elbow, and will be able to dive off at least one good leg. Mucz starts from a track runner’s-style crouch. “It’s not the greatest dive in the world,” she says with a laugh. “I just don't get the same kind of distance. So when we all surface, everybody’s just a little bit

ahead of me.” But Mucz usually powers ahead, especially in the longer distances—and her best shot in Barcelona, she says, is in the 400-m freestyle and the 200-m medley. “There,” she says, “my strength and my endurance are more important than my dive.”

For 22-year-old Chantal Petitclerc, swimming was just an introduction to athletics. Nine years ago, she was visiting a farm near her family’s home in St-Marc-des-Carrières, west of Quebec City, when a bam door fell on her. She suffered a spinal-cord injury that left her paralysed below the abdomen. Petitclerc took up swimming to keep in shape. But when, at age 17, she moved to Quebec City to attend school and found that there was no pool near her new home, she went to a gym to lift weights. There, she met the coach of the city’s wheelchair racing team. He convinced her to take up the sport and, within a year, she began smashing Canadian records.

Petitclerc, who moved to Edmonton last year to study history at the University of Alberta, went on to capture silver medals in the 800 m and the marathon at the 1990 world championships for athletes with disabilities. She also placed second in the 800 m at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and third in the same event at the 1991 world track-and-field championships—able-bodied games where the wheelchair race was a demonstration event.

Then, at the U.S. trackand-field trials in New Orleans last June, she faltered. It was her qualifying event for the demonstration event at the Summer Olympics, and she placed fifth—and out of contention. Competing at the § Olympics “is very important i as a symbol of integration,” I says Petitclerc, “and I was s very disappointed.”

§ Still, she says, she has reI focused her energies on the s Paralympics, where she will compete in the 200-, 400-, 800and 1,500-m races. “I think I have good chances,” says Petitclerc. “My coach and I are very confident.” In ablebodied games, she concedes, athletes would not enter such a wide variety of races. “It’s a very young sport,” explains Petitclerc. “But I think, within 10 years, the competition will get so strong that we will have to specialize if we want to win anything.” For many athletes with disabilities, participating in only the ninth Paralympic Games, that is a heartening prospect.

MARY NEMETH