When dreams are dragged down by negative expectations, it’s hard to find a reason to make plans and set goals.
I was born with a disability. My bones fracture easily, and adults around me feared the next broken arm or leg. So, people set boundaries.
I was told not to do things or to be very careful. These warnings set me on edge. They muddled my mind and constricted my soul. It wasn’t until the summer of 1996 that I would be able to move out of the fog of precautions and recognize my potential.
The heat in the summer of 1996 was oppressive, especially in downtown Atlanta. My family arrived a week or so after the Olympics. The city was resetting for an event few Americans knew about.
The Paralympics, similar to the Olympics, brought together elite athletes from almost every country around the world. The only difference from the Olympics was that every athlete had a disability.
I had never heard of the Paralympics and had no way to even conceive of such an event. At that time, I didn’t know you could adapt sporting events like basketball and track so that people with disabilities could compete on a level playing field.
The ride down to Atlanta took over four and a half hours. By the time we arrived, my family was ready to hit the streets to catch the opening ceremonies.
Making our way to the stadium, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. Hundreds of people congested the sidewalks, weaving between ticket hawkers and street vendors. Excitement built as we drew closer. I noticed people from all walks of life. So many of them used wheelchairs, crutches and canes.
For the first time, I didn’t feel like a freak show. The weight of people’s perception of normal no longer threatened to squash me. I finally felt free.
Inside the stadium, a spectacular cheer erupted as the ceremony commenced. Certain aspects of the show still send chills down my spine.
I remember an eagle being released from the Paralympic cauldron during the Star Spangled Banner. It soared into the sky and circled the American flag several times before exiting the stadium. Later on, a parachutist descended from the sky. As he came to the ground, I noticed that he wore two prosthetic legs and landed perfectly in the center of a star formed by children. I was in awe as Mark Wellman, a paraplegic mountain climber, climbed up 120 feet of rope with just his arms to light the cauldron.
The defining moment for me occurred as the men and women, all elite athletes, walked and rolled around the stadium wearing their nation’s colors. They proudly waved to the crowd, some yelling with excitement.
The parade of colors can seem long and boring with 104 countries to walk around the stadium. But to me, each athlete represented something that I had yet to grasp. These athletes weren’t defined by their physical limitations. They were being celebrated for their physical prowess. Seeing them sparked something in my spirit that continues to burn to this day.
That night, under the burning Paralympic torch, I began to dream.
My sense of wonder and astonishment grew as I attended events throughout the week. Events that ambulatory athletes had competed in just weeks ago were now being contested by individuals with significant physical disabilities.
Paralympic athletes competed in track and field with the use of guides, prosthetics and specialized wheelchairs. The long-distance wheelchair racers drafted within inches of each other around the track. They could reach mind-blowing speeds with just their upper bodies. Many had times just as fast or faster than their Olympic counterparts.
The spark lit during that week at the Paralympics pushed me in a new direction. It challenged my self-perception, encouraging me to set long- and short-term goals. I harnessed this new energy by getting into wheelchair track and field. My coaches taught me how to set specific athletic goals, and I qualified for my first Junior Nationals. A few years later, I qualified for the U.S. Junior Wheelchair National Track and Field team and competed twice in Australia for international competitions.
After learning to set athletic goals, I began setting other life goals. Going to college was never a sure thing for me. Several of my teachers made comments that made me feel unintelligent or worthless. I had some adults telling me that I would never be able to live independently. My experience in athletics helped me gain the confidence needed to ignore others’ negative opinions.
I made the conscious decision to apply. I researched post-secondary schools with adaptive athletic teams in hopes of continuing my athletic career. The University of Illinois, with its prolific history of sending athletes to the Paralympics and academic prowess, became my No. 1 school. I studied diligently to get the grades I would need. When I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I had real proof that goal setting and tenacity beat naysayers and negativity.
While I have not yet made it to the Paralympics, the lessons I learned along the way have significantly changed my life and made me a more self-confident person. Many of you enjoyed watching the Olympics that ended Aug. 21. I highly suggest you tune back in to NBC on Sept 7. The 2016 Rio Paralympics might just help you rethink what you once believed was possible.
Mia Ives-Rublee has a master’s degree in social work and is a research assistant at UNC. Write to her in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org