If you build it, they will come.

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“If you build it, they will come” is a quote from one of my favorite movies of all time, Field of Dreams. This statement will make sense by the time you get to the end of my blog today. Before I get to that story, however, I will begin with the highlights from the training session from this morning.

This morning, still sans equipment—the update on that is that the items have not actually arrived in Ghana, they were supposed to by 2PM today, but then we still have to wait on customs. Nothing is ever easy in a developing nation; the processes are difficult to understand, to follow, and even when you pay people extra, sometimes, you are just stuck. However, it was a fantastic training camp day!!

We have decided to break into groups, those with racing experience (and equipment, at this point) and those without racing experience and who have everyday chairs. Not all of the participants have wheelchairs to use, so we have to be creative and have some people borrow wheelchairs from those who are in racing chairs, and quite honestly, be flexible. Jean, Jenn and Marissa are handling the newbies, and I am working with the more experienced racers. The stories I heard from Jean and Marissa involved athletes lighting up for the first time when they tasted that freedom and sense of speed. They also reported one athlete who was quite hesitant to try the handcycle and let the boys go ahead of her and really needed that extra push to get going, and now, we can’t get her out of it to give others a turn!! The newbies are so impressionable, so eager to learn. There is something truly amazing and rewarding about igniting a fire within someone, and witnessing that moment when they realize, “hey, I can be somebody.” Or “hey, I can do this.”

My group is hungry for a hard core workout. They know my experience with wheelchair racing and Jean’s and are dreaming of Paralympic gold. I have a mix of both men and women, some of whom I had trained with before at Illinois, some who are new faces. They are the epitome of a coaches favorite kind of athlete—they are constantly asking for more. I ask, how are you feeling, do you think you can do one more 800m repeat? The response, “how about 2 more!”. I get thanked nearly every lap for the training and for working hard alongside them. Coaching has always been fun for me, but there is something different about this group, you can sense the drive and determination they each have, and it’s simply radiating.

The other incredible piece to this training camp is that the national stadium, where we are training, El-Wak, has several futbol (soccer) teams who use the facility to train as well as military personel who are there training and practicing formations on the infield. As you can imagine, particularly with Ghana’s fabulous performance at World Cup, Ghanians are passionate about sport. But, for these citizens to also witness us being there, the local Ghanaian athletes with disabilities training hard, it is a spectacle to witness. People gather to watch, ask questions, observe, and to just keep on training/doing their own thing while we are there too. Literally, we are here changing perceptions, changing the world, every moment. It is amazing to be a part of something bigger than you.

This leads into the title of this blog, “if you build it, they will come”. After our training session this morning, we met up with Alan and Patsy from Joni & Friends who had told us about this All African Disability Center as well as some undeveloped land they had in Tema and wanted some ideas from us on how to develop it keeping in mind athletes with disabilities. In some of the meetings up to this point, this Center had been mentioned, talked about, and the idea has been presented to make this center be the Paralympic Training Center. I had seen some pictures throughout the building process of this Center, from Jean, and knew that it was pretty neat that it would be the first building dedicated for people with disabilities in Ghana, but had no idea what was going to happen when we drove out there.

We took a ride out to Tema, got to see some of the countryside outside of the city and pulled off the paved road onto this windy beaten down dirt road. After a bumpy ride, we turn the corner, and as we pulled up the driveway and saw the most gorgeous, architecturally beautiful, elegant building you have ever seen, this was it. I imagine it is a similar feeling that families on Extreme Makeover Home Edition have when that bus driver “Moves that Bus”, because as we turned the corner and this magnificent center was in view, it was breathtaking. Literally, we were speechless. It was lightyears beyond all of my expectations. And it didn’t stop there. This was only the outside. From the very moment we pulled up, after spending a considerable amount of time thinking, processing the information from our meetings up to this point, witnessing the fires ignited within many of the athletes, I was hit by the mantra, “if you build it, they will come.”

I could literally visualize the hustle and bustle of this facility being an incredible Paralympic Training Center, for Ghanians and Africans and others with disabilities worldwide to come together, to learn from one another, to train hard in their respective sports, to host competitions. I could see people hanging out, laughing and joking between training sessions. The plot of land, I could instantly see maybe a track, some field pits, some archers shooting arrows. We then walked inside this beautiful stone building, it was warm and welcoming, and it’s not even furnished yet!!

Then, behind this one set of closed doors, was something that just blew our minds. The doors opened, and not only could I instantly visualize a roaring crowd as a wheelchair basketball game or quad rugby game would be taking place, there were 321 wheelchairs and pieces of adaptive equipment all lined up inside. It gives me goosebumps again just writing about it. These wheelchairs are life changing for these individuals. Emotions were flowing at this point. I was just awestruck by the potential. In so many places like this, it is a long, arduous battle for numerous reasons-- first you need funding, then you need a facility, then you need equipment, then you need athletes. Ghana is ready, and it’s all right here under our noses. Us coming here is like playing a giant game of connect the dots. Between all of our networks and resources, coupled with the facility and inspiration from Alan & Patsy with Joni & Friends, along with the blessing and support from the government of Ghana, literally, this is unstoppable, do-able and so close you can taste it. When we talked with the dignitaries and the government officials thusfar, none of us had any idea how ready this facility really was, how feasible this is etc. Suddenly, outfitting the facility with adaptive equipment, rollers, weights to turn it into a Paralympic Training Center, doesn’t seem so hard. Marissa, one of our team members, described this as us being given a black and white page out of a coloring book and asked to color it in. I love that analogy, and boy can we ever fill it in, for Ghana. But, it has the potential to be even bigger than that. All of us see this.
“If you build it, they will come”. Elite training camps for different countries and sports could easily be held here. Regional games for Africa could be held here. The potential we all see and saw in this facility was exploding like wildfire. We were all furiously taking notes, bouncing ideas off of each other, taking time to just walk around quietly and take it all in. It. Is. Incredible.
A while back, I started a project called VisionsUnite, which I still need to get really off the ground, and the story behind that project is for another day, but this experience, and this trip highlight the power of what can happen when true collaboration and visions do in fact unite. I cannot wait for the athlete’s to see this place ablaze with the colors we envision.

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