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…

 

image from usatoday.com

The Boys of Title IX

As a girl who tried out almost every sport at least once before finally finding my niche, I must say that I owe it to Title IX. Not that I knew it at the time. Starting at five years old, I was introduced to organized team sports and I didn’t know any different. I thought all parents automatically signed their children up for t-ball and soccer when they turned five. Of course that’s not the case, but I couldn’t compare.

So my story followed the path of a shy child, with flat feet, who couldn’t run if the world was ending. Naturally, I was signed up for soccer at age five and failed miserably. Age six– slow-pitch softball and I was afraid to catch the ball. I suffered through that sport for two years. The next year that I would have played was supposed to be fast-pitch and I refused to go back. For a few years in there, from about age five to age eight or nine, I did dance–ballet, tap and jazz. I took a few tennis lessons each summer, maintaining amateur level with my backhand. I signed up for a gymnastics try-out week. When they wanted me to do a flip over an 8-foot-high bar, I realized my fear of heights. My mom signed me up for an ice skating lesson–the only thing I learned was how to properly fall so that someone else skating by doesn’t slice your fingers off. Finally, at age nine, I joined the Hampton Dolphins swim club. And the rest is history. I swam for twelve years, three years varsity at a Division 1 college. I can’t say I loved every single minute. But I loved most of the minutes. So thank you Title IX.

The 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX is tomorrow, hence my seemingly random thoughts about my many team sports failures. Once I learned, probably in middle school at some point, that Title IX was responsible for all of my childhood mishaps with soccer balls and balance beams, I became intrigued. Title IX became the subject of many school projects and papers throughout high school and college. I was curious because I couldn’t imagine a time when girls weren’t allowed to play sports. It boggled my mind. My parents always told me I could do anything I wanted to. So here we are, 40 years later, and girls can do anything. We have female wrestlers, football players, body builders. We have girls basketball, soccer, and softball teams. It is pointless for me to even list all the sports because girls have an opportunity in all of them. Even if it might be hard for a girl to get onto a professional football team, it is possible for her to try. So the evidence is clear that Title IX has done wonders. And not just in sports, because that is not the only reason why Title IX was passed, that’s just the most prominent thing that stands out to the public.

So why bring it up then? If it’s simply a fact of life now, then why keep talking about it? Because first of all, girls and boys are still not entirely equal in schools and in sports. Girls still have some ways to go in some parts of the country. Second of all, people continue to look at Title IX from the girls’ perspective. But what about the boys? What about the wrestler whose college team got cut right before his senior year when he is about to be voted captain? What about the schools that cut track and cross country because their football team brings in way more revenue than track teams could dream of? When looking at the big picture, people argue that boys teams have not been hurt overall. That there are other opportunities for them and that just because a few teams get cut does not lower the overall rate of boys in sports, and the gap between girls and boys in sports is still decreasing.

I think Title IX is a good thing. But I also sympathize with the boys whose dreams have been crushed or altered because of it. The big picture is beautiful, yes. But look at it from that one boy’s perspective.

As a swimmer, the effects of Title IX on boys teams has hit a little closer to home for me than for someone else maybe. When I was looking at colleges, I was trying to find a school where I could swim. One school seemed great; the team seemed fun, the academics were awesome–but they told me that was the last year for their boys team. I eliminated it from my choices. I wanted to swim with boys. Swimming is a co-ed sport and I had always swam with boys. They motivated me and made the team more interesting and I wouldn’t swim at a school without a boys team. So I may have been a great asset to that school, but they missed out. They shouldn’t have cut their boys team.

My boyfriend, whom I met on the swim team in college, told me that he had wanted to go to Rhode Island, that he was signed and ready to go to Rhode Island. They called him last minute, telling him they cut their boys team. (Thank God, or I wouldn’t have met him. Best decision Rhode Island ever made.) So he had to change his plans. He was in line for a scholarship from RI, but at Delaware, boys scholarships weren’t really available (they were saved for football). So I watched his dreams change as he adjusted to the consequences of Title IX.

During the spring semester in 2011, I had the opportunity of speaking with several of the athletes on the UD Track and Cross Country teams. I invited them on my TV show to talk about the fact that the school had just reduced these varsity teams to club status. There was outrage across campus about this decision. Students couldn’t understand why the football team (which wasn’t the best football team) couldn’t get slightly less funding. They couldn’t understand why the university couldn’t promote a girls club team to varsity status to make the participation equal. I’m sure it was a difficult decision for the school and they felt this was the best option. But when you talk to these kids, as individuals who were really great athletes, who had planned their lives to run track at UD, and you see their varsity-level team get swept out from under them with hardly any warning, then you wonder about Title IX. The track and cross country athletes had dinner with the president of the university to voice their complaints. They signed petitions and spoke to kids around campus. 

These are the boys who are affected by Title IX and just because their numbers may be small in terms of the bigger picture, their sport was important to them. Their individual stories will always be affected by Title IX.

There is no denying that Title IX is doing a great job of promoting sports for girls and enabling their involvement. However, there must be some other way to continue this progress without cutting boys teams in order be be in compliance. Talk to any boy whose team has been cut or downgraded to club status. I’m sure they have some ideas.