Achieving Olympic Dreams: Running on Blades

Of all the inspirational stories that emerge from the coverage of the Olympics, the one that caught my eye a few days ago was that of Oscar Pistorius, of South Africa. He is called the Blade Runner, using prosthetics in place of both of his lower legs and feet. Oscar is quite literally a runner without legs. If that doesn’t inspire someone, what will?

He was born without fibulas and was not even a year old when his legs were amputated. Think about the kind of life he probably had, growing up. It’s hard enough to live in the hard world with all your limbs. And still he had Olympic dreams. He still knew that he could do more, even without his legs. And luckily, we do live in this hard world, because it enabled him to find a way around his “handicap.” Building him some prosthetic legs put him on the path to greatness. If only it could work like that for everyone with the Olympics in their sights.

Pistorius worked hard and has to have tons of natural talent in order to get where he is today. But he also has to be incredibly lucky. Not every double-amputee with or without prosthetic limbs ends up in the Olympics. He is lucky that he has the money to afford his state-of-the-art legs, and to replace them when necessary. He’s lucky that his case was reviewed and ruled in his favor to allow him to compete in this year’s Olympics. It can’t be easy for him. Why don’t you try running with no legs?

Yet there are still bitter critics saying that his artificial legs give him an unfair advantage; they give him spring in his step that other runners don’t have; they reduce his fatigue because there are no muscles there to use up oxygen and make him tired. But if he had such an advantage, wouldn’t there be more amputees running as fast as he is?

It might be easier for people to yell “unfair!” than to admit that their guy will get beat by a runner with no legs. We want everything to be equal and fair, but that’s not how the world is. It’s not even fair for the people who do have their legs. Some of those runners have had better coaching, or are in a geographically more agreeable country or city. Some athletes are better off financially and can concentrate on just running, while others are trying to hold a job and provide for a family. People aren’t going to come from the exact same circumstances, so can’t we call it unfair for everyone? Can we kick everyone out who we think is too old or too young, not allow someone to compete because they had more time to practice than we did?

His artificial blades were proven to not give him any extra spring. They are shock absorbing, like many running shoes claim to be, but they do not add extra power. I’m sure with today’s technology rapidly advancing, that power boost may  not be far behind. But of course, the Olympic committee would shoot down a competitor with a power boost in their feet, just as they would someone who takes performance enhancing drugs. There is obviously a line between artificial feet and rockets for legs.

It would not be easy to learn to walk on blades and certainly not easy to run fast enough to qualify in the Olympics. Whatever “advantages” this guy has, it is not his feet.  I salute him. I hope he runs the best he can and keeps up with the best of them. I hope he wins medals and proves to everyone that you can achieve dreams even with disadvantages like the loss of your legs. I hope he becomes an inspiration to other amputees in the world, and those who are trying to overcome major challenges in their lives. I do not, however, think that he should be able to compete in the Paralympics after the London Olympics. If he has the chance to prove how great he is now, he shouldn’t need to prove himself again, or against other amputees. He earned the right to compete in the Olympics and he deserves that. But no one else gets two tries. Now that is what is unfair.

As technology continues to improve and we become better able to make limbs for amputees, and give people the chances that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, we’re going to have to keep re-evaluating what is “fair” and who has the “advantage.” It is a continuous process, just as everything else dealing with rising technology is an ongoing process. With everything in a state of constant change, nothing is going to be cut and dry forever.

Oscar Pistorius proves that someone without legs can run in the Olympics. Hopefully this will open doors for others like him and we can continue to be supportive of all athletes who work hard and persevere through all the obstacles they are given.

And if he can run races in the Olympics, without legs, I can surely get off the couch and hit the gym once in awhile. Like I said, truly an inspiration…


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Olympic Dreams


This was the year I was supposed to go to the Olympics.

I started swimming competitively when I was nine years old. It was the only sport I could do well, with my flat feet and lack of running skills and hand-eye coordination. I became as dedicated as any swimmer could get. I was the first one in the pool, last one out, before school, after school, weight lifting. Never skipped a set or a lap. (Ok, rarely skipped.) I distinctly remember one of my old coaches sitting down with me to discuss my future in swimming. He asked what my goals were, whether it was getting a better time, beating a certain person, or going to the Olympics. I looked at him, all confused, and said, “Doesn’t every swimmer want to go to the Olympics?”

I calculated my age and the years that the summer Olympics were held and decided that I would probably be at my peak when I was 22 years old, for the 2012 Olympics. I figured I wasn’t going to be a Michael Phelps at age 15, but by 22, I should have it in the bag.

So, yes, this was the year I should have gone to the Olympics.

I would never have come close to the fast times that these Olympians are going. I would have been drowning in their wake as they swam circles around me. I was never, ever on track to swim that fast. I had the most drive and motivation a coach could ever want in an athlete, but you have to have more than that to be the absolute best. You have to have some kind of innate talent and ability that cannot be taught or learned. These Olympians are naturals to the point of having super powers. But children should have dreams. The goal of every young athlete should be to go to the Olympics. It’s what teaches them to work hard, never give up, shake off mistakes and learn to work even harder.

The Olympians, not just those competing in London right now, but all of the past and future Olympic athletes, are heroes and role models to so many people, especially children. I looked with awe and wonder at the massive shoulders of my heroes competing on television and I watched them break records and I wanted to be in their shoes someday. And that is where I learned my dedication and commitment and my drive.

I had posters of swimmers covering my bedroom walls when I was younger. I meticulously cut pictures out of magazines, even tiny pictures that were barely three inches wide. So many you could hardly see the wall. Pictures of Dara Torres, Aaron Piersol, Dana Munz, Misty Hyman, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps. When I took them down sometime in high school, I’m pretty sure I saved them, because I couldn’t bear to throw away my childhood idols. These athletes were the ones that kept me in the pool, made me go to practice, and helped me with my stroke. I imagined I was one of them when I practiced and raced. I watched videos about how Michael Phelps swims his butterfly, and I tried to emulate him. These athletes were and still are my heroes and convince me every day that great things can be achieved, with hard work and a dream.

Every kid in sports needs that. Every adult not in sports needs that. We need to be able to believe that impossible is possible, that dreams can come true. We can see it on the athletes’ faces– the smiles as they touch the wall, score the last point, finish the race– that this is the moment they prepared for all their lives, and we’re living that moment with them. Because those moments are our moments. Those were our dreams too and we might not be the ones competing in London, but that was our goal, that was supposed to be our Olympics. So we’re left to live vicariously through the ones who were lucky enough to be born with the natural talent that we didn’t get, the monstrous shoulders, the massive legs, the precise stroke, the better coaching and more pool time. It’s not difficult to see why we didn’t go, so we’ll settle. We’ll let them swim our races, let them win the medals. We’ll cheer with them and cry for them and our hearts will break for them, in their successes and failures. These are our heroes, representing the United States, representing all of the young athletes whose dream it is to get there, representing all the non-athletes who can still find joy in their triumph.

I will let them swim my races. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, Cullen Jones…I guess they’re pretty good, they probably worked pretty hard. But by God, they better swim well. Because that was supposed to be me there.


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