Worldwide, a movement is taking place that celebrates our humanity, and the upcoming 2018 Winter Paralympics, which follows the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month, is the next great opportunity for all of us to share in it. The increasingly popular event will help change further the perception of the disabled community and the potential of members to achieve great things in life.
Before I became a two-time summer Paralympic swimmer, I competed against non-disabled swimmers for Franklin & Marshall College, eventually ranking 6th nationally in the 1,650-yard freestyle and earning Division III All-America honors. I won silver and bronze medals in the 2012 London Summer Paralympic Games. Four years later, I returned for the Rio Games and won three golds and one silver, and I broke three world records in the visual category.
I’m now training for the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo, and I can attest that Paralympic athletes train just as hard as their Olympic counterparts. (I train at North Baltimore Aquatic Club — yes, the same place where Michael Phelps trained.) Each athlete, while physically disabled, is world-class in her or his respective sport, and only our disabilities distinguish us from our Olympics counterparts.
Of course, everyone has a story, but our stories as disabled athletes are truly remarkable and, I hope, inspiring. Imagine skiing down a mountain totally blind or snowboarding on a prosthetic leg. Think about what it takes to compete as a world-class curling champion from your wheelchair or as a war veteran representing your country in a hockey sled — or as someone with Usher Syndrome, who’s been deaf since birth and is now losing her eyesight, like me.
In watching the 2018 Winter Paralympics you will witness many such stories of individuals who became elite athletes despite their hardships. As Paralympians, we do not want pity. We want admiration for our strength and determination, and we want you to share in the joy that competitive sports gives us and the unifying quality of the games.
Paralympians compete in various classes that reflect our disability — blind athletes compete only against other blind athletes, for example — and the summer and winter games make it possible for athletes with a wide range of disabilities to participate. Individually or as teams. Paralympians represent their countries and compete at the highest level on the world’s biggest stage with the hope of claiming a Paralympic title.
Worldwide, the games this year will see a 24 percent increase in athlete participation over the 2014 Sochi Games, according to the International Paralympic Committee. In the U.S., awareness of the games and their athletes is bigger than ever. NBC, which supports the Paralympics and heavily advertises them during its Olympics broadcasts, plans 94 hours of coverage on television along with 24/7 online streaming access. Sponsors such as Toyota, Procter & Gamble and others are behind the athletes on their road to PyeongChang.
Tune in to the Games. You will find yourself drawn into the excitement of the sports you watch, many of which are the same competitions featured in the Olympics. How these athletes made accommodations to play and compete at such a high level will amaze you. You will see their strength, determination and focus. These Games electrify as much as the Olympics, but the athletes’ physical impairments make their victories even sweeter.
Rebecca Meyers, recipient of the 2015 and 2017 ESPY Award as the world's best female athlete with a disability, is a junior history major at Franklin & Marshall College. Twitter: @becca_meyers.