Doesn’t every little girl want a Paralympic wheelchair racing Barbie doll? Ours did when she was four, and it remains one of her favorite toys because “wheelchair racing Barbie is so fast and has good clothes” in her words. Echoed further at the Circle Triathlon yesterday, which we compete in as a family, she asked if this is what the Paralympics were like; she has caught a competitive streak. Not sure where that comes from. She wonders why her dad is the only one racing in a wheelchair or a hand cycle– and Geoff explains how at the Paralympics everyone has some kind of physical disability. Her reply: “That is so cool.” And I shake my head wondering what her view of the world will be when she is 17.
So, while it is cool that hundreds of Paralympic athletes will compete with one another beginning on Sept. 7, the fact that they were either born with or challenged with a profound physical disability through a traumatic accident or injury is not exactly cool. Yet, Greta’s point, I think, is the cool factor comes from these athletes still being able to compete in different sports.
September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. How did we not know this? I learned this information from my side work writing for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Earlier in the week when we were doing some bike maintenance getting ready for our family triathlon, Geoff broke his toe maneuvering into his racing wheelchair. Of course, he did not know or feel that he had broken his toe due to his level of spinal cord injury, but as we chased our children, fished, and prepped dinner, I noticed his foot kept spasming. He gave us all a lesson in autonomic dysreflexia, for adults and kids alike, which is the way the body can still communicate to its owner that something is hurting or bothering the nerves in the nervous system. The neighborhood kids crowded around his wheelchair as he touched each of this toes; when he got to the injured one, his whole leg spasmed making them all jump. I took video because it was a great example of trying to understand the complexity of the body’s healing and protective qualities.
We do not pretend to know everything about spinal cord injuries, because it is individual for each person affected. But I do know when Geoff is called because an individual near or around our community has just sustained a spinal cord injury in some sort of horrific accident, I’m glad they have reached out. What we do know a lot about is living with a spinal cord injury that is challenging yet not impossible. Little kids like to touch Geoff’s legs to see if he can feel them. He can not. Yet, he lets them pinch his toes (clearly not the broken one right now) just to try. He brings hand cycles and mono skis into kindergarten classrooms so they can compare how we walking people ride bikes to how sitting people ride bikes. This is why September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month– to help make people AWARE of how much is complicated and complex and cool about the spinal cord, and even what people can do when theirs is broken.
#WeAreAllSportsFans is an awareness tool in itself encouraging fans of ALL sports to engage and participate in the Paralympic journey as professional spectators. We will be watching with our children, of course, not because their dad is disabled, but because these are also the kind of athletes we want our kids to look up, aspire to be like, and to see beyond their disability.
Greta is right; it is cool that everyone who competes in the Paralympics has a disability; what’s even cooler is if we can get the whole world to watch. #WeAreAllSportsFans.