Paralympics opens door to sports for disabled

BY foxsports • March 19, 2010

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, Karolina Wisniewska used to race against able-bodied skiers. At the time, she had no idea the Paralympics even existed.

``I knew because I was disabled I couldn't race in the Olympics, so I didn't really have that dream,'' she said.

Wisniewska and others involved in the Paralympic movement believe hosting the Winter Paralympics in Canada will introduce a new wave of the country's young talent to sports for the disabled.

Seeing people like visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever and Alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft win medals can open a door many disabled people believed was closed to them.

``Sometimes young people with disabilities don't know that there is an evolution in sports,'' said Woolstencroft, who was born without legs below the knee and no left arm below the elbow. ``They look at the Olympics and say 'That's not going to be me.'

``Having the Paralympics, and getting media coverage, getting the word out there . . . people will start trying it.''

Rob Needham, high performance director for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said getting more people involved in sports programs for the disabled can help improve their lives, plus will increase the talent pool to draw from for future Games.

``We are looking to recruit more athletes in both the Summer and Winter Paralympics,'' Needham said. ``We need thousands more people with disabilities competing.

``They all won't advance to the Paralympics but they will get the social benefits of competition. They will meet more people, have more friends.''

Of the 53 athletes competing for Canada at the 2010 Paralympics, nine are 30 or older. Another nine are over 40 and one is 52 years old.

On the other end of the scale, the youngest athlete is 16 and six are 22 or younger.

Needham said age can be deceiving.

Some Paralympic athletes don't incur their disability until later in life. Many wheelchair athletes don't reach their peak until their mid to late 30s.

``I wouldn't fixate on the age so much,'' he said. ``In certain events we want to get the younger people involved.''

Needham acknowledged that in some of the alpine and nordic disciplines at the Paralympics, Canada either didn't compete, or had just one athlete involved.

``Overall, it's just a need to bring more athletes into the system,'' he said.

There are an estimated five million Canadians with disabilities. Of that number, roughly 400,000 may have the potential to compete at a Paralympics, according to Needham.

It's estimated only 3 percent of Canadians with a disability are involved in organized sport, compared to 31 percent of able-bodied Canadians.

``The biggest element is raising the awareness level,'' Needham said.

Several programs and initiatives have been developed to expose disabled people to sports.

The Canadian Paralympic Committee Web site has several programs. One is an online guide for teachers to help educate students on Paralympic sport. There is also a database which allows people with disabilities to find programs and clubs in their own areas.

Another program called 'Changing Minds, Changing Lives' explains the benefits of sports for disabled people to health care workers.

Needham said some health care workers tended to wrap disabled people ``in bubble wrap'' instead of suggesting they get involved in sports.

``We're not talking high-performance, just getting people out,'' Needham said. ``Educate them about the benefits of competing in sports.''

The Paralympic committee also hopes to recruit athletes though 'Soldier On.' The program was started in 2006 by a Canadian Forces member and an official with the aim of helping sick or injured military personnel through physical activity and sport.

Rower Steven Daniel, a former soldier paralyzed during a 2005 parachute training accident, competed in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.

``We are in the early stages of the program,'' Needham said. ``Hopefully by the next Games we will see more and more athletes emerge.''

Along with athletes, the Paralympic program also needs more coaches.

``A lot (of coaches) may just not be aware of the opportunity,'' Needham said. ``In some cases they are not aware of the high performance of our athletes.''

Wisniewska welcomes all the programs, but said the biggest contributor to disabled sport is increased media coverage of the Paralympics.

``It's on TV, it's getting print media,'' she said. ``Now the little Laurens and Karolinas out there can say 'Hey, I relate to that person and I can be in the Paralympics.' That is so important.''

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