Anjali's Blog

Thoughts from the Homefront

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November was a relatively quiet month for me. I spent the entire month grounded, not 10,000 feet up in the air bouncing from hotel to hotel. It was wonderful! I honestly thought I was going to go stir crazy after the first week, but I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to stay happily in one location. It was also refreshing and exciting to sleep in my own bed and to be able to catch up with friends in person!

The month was spent just honing in on my training and knocking things off of my "to-do" list so that I can enter this last month prior to world championships without a lot of stuff hanging over my head. I wrapped up my semester of school and took care of all of the errands that when you live up in the air, are difficult to find the time to get done – such as car appointments, going to the post office etc. How do people find time to do things like that? It baffles me! Overall, the month recharged me and I feel rested, relaxed and ready for the next two months to come!

I also spent some time following the news and reading up on perceptions of disability and of Paralympic sport. It is always something, as an athlete with a disability myself, that I have a heightened awareness for and certainly a vested interest in.

There was an article published online about a high school student who uses a power wheelchair who scored a touchdown for his team. While the sport teams and the school ought to be applauded for their inclusivity and for providing the student with this opportunity, the athlete in me struggled with the presentation and several aspects of the story.

I was left wondering what this story was really teaching the general public about sports for people with disabilities. The article and accompanying video made it seem like it was a cliché sad sob story of, "what a special opportunity for a poor kid in a wheelchair" and not really about sport, even though the headline read "High school football player in wheelchair scores touchdown." In the video, we see the high school student, a user of a power wheelchair, be handed the football and allowed, unimpeded by either team to roll into the end zone to score. There was no defense, no physical skill truly involved in the event, which, in my mind, are critical components of sport.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to be about sport? But, why is it that at the end of 2010, the stories about athletes with disabilities end up in the lifestyle section, where we applaud participation in sport, but fail to grasp and comprehend the amazing athletic accomplishments of these athletes?

Something else that happened to me this month was that Facebook partnered with Wikipedia. They automatically integrated Wikipedia pages into a business, celebrity page on Facebook. I mention this because the evening I discovered this, I was imported as an interest! Not as an athlete as many of my teammates and competitors were, an interest! I contacted Facebook to try to have this resolved, as clearly I am an athlete not an interest, but have not had much success yet.

What this high school student did, being allowed to score a touchdown for his team, was not an athletic endeavor; it was a human interest story. I am sure it opened a lot of doors for this student socially and was rewarding to feel included, but taken out of context, and presented as sport for people with disabilities, it fails to tell the whole story.

Athletes such as this student are eligible to compete in the Paralympic Games in a variety of sports, including boccia, field events and wheelchair tennis to name a few. There are legitimate sporting opportunities at the recreational, high school, national and international levels!

Stories such as this one show me that we as a nation still have a long way to go in terms of educating others about Paralympic sport and about sport opportunities for people with disabilities. The onus does not rest solely on the general public to learn about Paralympic sport, but also on athletes like myself, program coordinators, recreation & parks departments and coaches to ensure athletes with disabilities are aware of existing sport opportunities.

For this student, perhaps football is not his sport. This is not discriminatory, as my roommate and I discussed on this issue, you don't see the NBA putting the short guy in the starting lineup just because it's his dream! Some people are built for certain sports, and others aren't. Inclusion isn't about being patronizing, it's about giving the same opportunities. He should be allowed to try out for the football team, no question, but maybe it's not the best outlet for him to participate in sport. There are always new sport opportunities arising for people with disabilities. This month alone I decided to try out a dry-land cross country ski! Who knows, maybe Sochi 2014 is in my future?

One of the larger questions this article raised for me is the issue of inclusion versus separate events. It is something that I, as an athlete with a disability, struggle with. Personally, I think there is a space and needed space for both. Meaning, I see value in athletes with disabilities being integrated on their high school sport teams, or community teams.

However, the benefit is more at a social level to be on a team with your peers, but from a competition standpoint, the number of athletes with disabilities is significantly less, and therefore competing on teams like that presents a whole host of other challenges, especially when the equipment used is different—you wouldn't have a cyclist competing in the running division of the marathon, for example.

But, the existing competitions and disability-specific divisions or competitions create a space for this high level of competition. I also feel that sport is sport, and there is absolutely no reason why an able-bodied person cannot enter a race in the wheelchair division and race in a racing wheelchair! Sport is sport! Some sports that operate with a factor system would be able to accommodate this quite easily, such as skiing for example, where a raw time is multiplied by a set number based on one's functional ability level. It raises questions on how one would be able to implement this idea in other sports, but it shouldn't be ruled out!

On a personal level, I benefitted from both my disability-specific sports teams growing up and being a part of the Waterville Valley Ski Academy for able-bodied athletes where I was integrated onto the team. I had the opportunity to race in both ski races designed for able-bodied athletes and those that were disability-specific. The benefits I got from each were tremendous! Entering an able-bodied race, I was able to first educate others about disabled sports. I was also able to incorporate more competitions into my season; disabled races are scattered throughout the nation and it was not always feasible to get to them all, so by being integrated, I was still able to compete and use those competitions as checkpoints to see how my training was going.

On the flipside, my disability-specific sport teams were filled with other benefits. I was able to be on a team with other athletes who were disabled, we had coaches and instructors who were adept at understanding adaptive equipment. We had an established pathway of recreational sport to junior level competition and ultimately to the Paralympic level. Being on a sports team with other disabled athletes gives you the chance to see how you stack up against those who are in your classification, instead of racing solely against yourself or your own times. The social benefit to this type of team is also huge, and qualitatively different than the social benefits to being on an able-bodied sports team. The benefit is that you don't have to explain yourself or your disability or prove your athletic prowess to your peers, because they know you can do sport, disability and all, because they do it too!

I am glad that disability-sport issues are getting out in the news more, but there's still ways to make it better. If we all can take on the challenge of educating one new person a week about the Paralympic Games and sporting opportunities for people with disabilities, maybe we can change perceptions! Who's up for the challenge?

Come to Borders & See Me!

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Hello Everybody,
Please consider coming out to one of my book signings for: "Color.
Learn & Play: All About Sports for Athletes with Physical
Disabilities" at Borders!! I will for sure be at the locations marked
with a (*) doing book signings and answering questions about my story
and my sport. For the others, books will be there for purchase and my
co-author, Lynn Toomey will be present.

Friday, December 3
11:00am-1:30pm - Borders, School St., Boston*
2:30-5:00pm - Borders, Copley location (Boylston St.)*

Saturday, December 4
11:30am-12:30pm - Borders, Cambridgeside Galleria
2:00-3:00pm - Borders, Shrewsbury*
4:00-5:00pm - Borders, Marlborough*

 Sunday, December 5
11:30-12:30pm - Borders, Dedham (Legacy Place)

Hope to see you there!!

422-hundred Meter Sprints, Crayons & California Sun

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422 Hundred Meter Sprints, Crayons & California Sun

by
Anjali Forber-Pratt

November 02, 2010

422 Hundred-Meter Sprints
We all need those reach goals in our lives. My last blog was about goal setting, and the importance of that; but the compliment to that is having those things in our lives that push us physically, mentally and emotionally to that next level. For this 100m sprinter, that would be the first part of this title…422 hundred-meter sprints, also known as the Chicago Marathon.
I am happy to report that I completed my second marathon ever in my life with a huge PR! I am proud of this accomplishment, as completing a marathon certainly taxes you in all of those domains.
My coach and I have a running joke about it just being 422-hundred meter sprints, because that’s how I think of everything, in terms of sprints. Though, I have to admit, when actually racing, I thought of it more in terms of 5K increments, it was far less daunting that way!! So why does a hundred-meter sprinter subject herself to 422 of these? Honestly, it’s because I thrive off of that challenge and being pushed to new heights. 
I don’t picture myself as a marathoner per say, but I do find that type of training and race gives me a solid foundation to build off of. And I have made the promise to several people over the years that I will someday complete the Boston Marathon… maybe that day is coming sooner than I think! Who knows, wait and find out!

Crayons
My kids coloring book, All About Sports: for Athletes with Physical Disabilities is catching on! I am overwhelmed by the positive feedback and interest from rehabilitation hospitals, schools, community programs, friends, family and strangers!
Since the launch, I was an invited author for the Youth Literature Festival here in Champaign, Illinois where I had the opportunity to visit local schools and sign books at the event. I will also be traveling to Boston, Massachusetts for an event for the May Institute with the local Borders stores to help promote the book! The May Institute does a great deal of programs for children and adults with autism and other disabilities, I’m honored to be a part of the event!
We’re already gearing up for a second printing!! Help spread the word! Who doesn’t love to color? I also am reminded of one of my favorite quotes about being positive, “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world.  Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be bleak.  Try adding some bright colors to the picture by including humor, and your picture begins to lighten up.” –Allen Klein

California Sun
I spent the week out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista for our second pre-worlds training camp. Our training camp was spent with a hybrid of both training time and classroom sessions to help with our preparation. Two key takeaways from my week were: adaptability and focus.
Adaptability is something that many Paralympic athletes, and people with disabilities in general, are quite adept at. Though, there are certain moments when this sense of adaptability and flexibility really shine through. There were numerous examples of this from our training camp this week.
As an athlete, it is important to have your regular routine and regiment, however, it is also important to be able to expect the unexpected and to adapt accordingly. While I would love to stay in my home training environment for as long as possible, because we have created it to truly work with access to a fully accessible gym, a world-class coach, medical trainers, road and track access, etc., when we travel overseas for training camps or for World Championships, I don’t have the luxury of everything I am used to having. Therefore, my approach for this training camp, instead of letting the differences be roadblocks or frustrations, rather to remember that it’s just a way of practicing for the different environments we may find ourselves in overseas.
Anjali Forber-Pratt gets in a weightlifting workout at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center.
That said, check out this picture which I feel captures adaptability at it’s finest!! The scenario was as follows:

  • Location:  In the weight room at the Olympic Training Center.
  • Task: Complete 4 sets of Curl-Press-Tricep Extensions
  • Challenge: An appropriate arrangement to allow for those body movements AND provide enough support for my lack of balance. The traditional weight bench in an upright position prevented me from safely completing the tricep extension part, probably because I’m short! The metal office-type chair had a single armrest preventing my ability to complete the curl part of the curl-press. The square metal stool alone… have you ever seen somebody without abdominal function attempt to balance on a stool and lift 25lb weights? It doesn’t work so well.
  • Conclusion: Anjali sitting on a square metal stool, (traditionally used for jumping I think) strategically placed behind a metal office-type chair so I could have back support with a Velcro strap for added stability followed by my wheelchair in front so my feet could rest on my footplate, with weights behind my wheelchair bracing it to prevent it from rolling.

You better believe that I tried about three set-ups before settling on this one. Some might call that perseverance, I call it adaptability. Knowing what the task was at hand and what muscles the lift is supposed to work, I had to be creative based on my own disability and function to figure out something that would work. This was the end result.
The second theme from the week, for me, was focus. What does it mean to be focused? What does it take to be focused? How does an athlete who may wear multiple hats off the track or the field put on just one for a period of time? These were questions that were addressed square on during this week’s training camp.
How do you do it? You just do. Being an athlete gearing up for World Championships, there is a huge element of sacrifice. Ask any Olympic or Paralympic athlete how they got to where they have and chances are there were some big sacrifices made along the way to enable that focus and drive.
For me, leading up to Beijing, I remember the sacrifices. There were sacrifices such as missing my sister’s senior dance concert, even though I had been to nearly every one from the time she started dancing at age 3. There were sacrifices of missing class and final presentations, missing family holidays and gatherings.
Luckily, the flipside to these sacrifices are some pretty incredible memories and results. For all my friends and family, and for my fellow teammates’ friends and family, thank you for being understanding and supportive!
Right now, with the task at hand being World Championships, I’m beginning to pair everything I can down to the bare essentials to allow for that focus to take it’s course. For any of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that I typically speak another language called, “airport code.” One of the ways that I am building this focus into my everyday life is that for this entire month of November, I have not one single trip. No airports, none. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a month without travel, but it’s all for that focus.
This next month will be spent training hard and clearing the rest of my schedule and obligations for December and January. Not as easy as one may think, but it’s all for the sake of focus!

Climbing the Mountain

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Since last writing, I attended our first pre-worlds training camp out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. It was the first time Team USA was together! Our team is quite the mix of both veteran athletes and newbies, it will be a fantastic event!

As World Championships is drawing closer, I feel like this is an important time to talk about goal setting and its importance and how I use it in my daily life. I believe that we all have goals in our lives, whether it's personal goals, athletic goals or professional goals. However, very rarely do we spend the time to actually write these goals down. There was a longitudinal study conducted by the USOC on emerging to elite athletes investigating effects of goal setting. Guess what they found:

Athletes with defined goals (that is, thought out and written down in positive language) showed a 3% to 5% performance improvement over athletes without defined goals over a 1 to 4 year period.

Think about that for a moment. For any athlete, regardless of your sport, who wouldn't want a 3-5% performance improvement?

Goals that focus on process, rather than outcome are more likely to come true. So what is the difference between the two? Outcome goals are more like the big picture dream. For example, an outcome goal might be to represent Team USA in London 2012. This type of goal is important to have in mind, but in and of itself, it is not enough. Outcome goals, such as this one, are oftentimes so big that it is easy to feel defeated by it before you even start. Outcome goals are important to push us to new heights.

Goals allow us all to have something to measure our progress against. This means we can gauge if our actions are in alignment reaching that target. Goals help to maintain focus. Without goals, you train, workout, or do things with very little purpose and then you get to the end of life and ask yourself, what did I accomplish?

A common visual image when thinking about goals is that of a mountain. Perhaps the outcome goal is to climb the mountain, but it takes a lot of smaller process goals in order to achieve that feat. These process goals include the physical training and mental preparation for such a task. Process goals are specific, measurable attainable, realistic and timely. For example, a process goal in this scenario might be: To run 10 miles in under an hour at 5,000 feet of elevation within three months. A common acronym for process goals is SMART. The question of, what can I accomplish today towards my bigger outcome goal is answered by a process goal.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Attainable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Timely

Specific

Breaking this down further, to be specific means that the goal you write should answer the question of what do you want to happen? What are you going to do? It is important to use action verbs such as run, lift, perform, shoot, organize, produce, use, create etc.

Measurable

This means there is some way built into the goal to know whether you have achieved it or not. Goals that are not measurable are not really helpful goals. For example, "I want to be a better swimmer" is a poorly written goal because there is no clear understanding of what a better swimmer actually is. A far better goal might be, "to swim the 100 yard breast stroke in 1:15 or better. Something to remember is that time is not the only way to make goals measurable. Other ways to measure can include place of finish, number of something (such as shots made). Think about your sport and the different ways you can make something measurable.

Attainable

If your goals are too far out of your reach, it is easy to get discouraged and to stop committing to the goal. Therefore, a goal needs to have just the right amount of stretch meaning you aren't there yet, but it is just outside of your grasp. You still feel like you can do it, and it will need a real commitment from you. In my experience, working with a mentor or coach to find this balance of attainability is very helpful. We all need to have some successes as this helps us to stay motivated.

Realistic

This is similar to a goal being attainable. It means that your goal is do-able, by you. It means that in order to achieve your goal the required skills are available to you or perhaps you have some of them already.

Timely

Having a timeframe for the goal really helps to keep you focused on it. The timeframe might be for next week, for next practice, in six months—it all depends. Without a timeframe, not only is it easy to forget about your goal, but there is also no sense of urgency to get it done.

For goals to be effective, they need to be used properly. Just having the goals is not enough; put them in a place where you will see them every day. Daily reminder and system for you to check to make sure you are on the right track. For me, my athletic goals are in my bathroom on the mirror, additionally, I carry with me a laminated index card with my time goals for my events, and personal bests to serve as a reminder.

Revisit your goals regularly. Goal setting should not be an annual thing that gets forgotten about. It ought to be something that you continually revisit, that you discuss with your coach multiple times throughout the season—at the end of each practice or workout, ask yourself, did I work towards my goal(s) today?

Something new that I'm trying for myself is to have a SMART goal for my specific practice session. I realized I was really good at having long-term outcome goals and process goals for the season and for specific competitions, but not very disciplined at doing that in practice too.

I hope you can use some of these goal setting tips and tricks in your own life or as you prepare for your next competition!

World Championships, Here I Come!

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A day in the life of Anjali is never a dull moment; anybody who knows me can attest to this. In the span of one weeks' time, I travelled through six states, officially launched a children's coloring book about Paralympic sports, changed the focus of my academic studies, and was named to the 2010 World Championship Team that will be headed to Christchurch, New Zealand in January.

Today, I spoke at a leadership conference in Baltimore, Md. for The Hartford, the founding sponsor of U.S. Paralympics, and am currently at the airport finishing up some schoolwork for tomorrow's class...sometimes I pretend to be a real student!

What did you do this week?
In all seriousness, the story of being named to Team USA is a fun one, so let's start there. We knew that team nominations would be made by Friday, so I was periodically checking USParalympics.org and waiting for the official word.

On Thursday, I flew to Washington D.C. for a research meeting, but I also co-teach an online class on Thursday nights. With some unforeseen flight delays, I arrived at my hotel with just minutes to spare before my class was going to start. I got myself all connected and wired in and ready to go. In the middle of class I got a phone call from our High Performance Director congratulating me on being named to the World Championship Team!

Of course, I sent a message to the instructor who I co-teach with telling him of this news, and he was so excited we interrupted class so I could share my exciting news with my students! I am very excited about this opportunity to represent my country once again and to compete at World Championships in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m! The entire roster can be found here.

So this coloring book project... most doctoral students get excited about article publications, and then, there's me, who gets a coloring book published! I've never been one for being "traditional." The coloring book project started about two years ago, and I am so excited to now be able to tell people that they can place their order to learn "All About Sports: For Disabled Athletes." Where did the idea come from? How did it come to be?

As a kid, there were very few books out there that I could relate to, that spoke to me as a disabled athlete. The few that do exist were largely outdated. One of my passions is educating kids about the possibilities that exist in the world, kids with and without disabilities. Obviously, I want to educate kids with disabilities about the sport opportunities that exist for them, but more than that, it is about creating awareness in all kids about the Paralympics, about disabled sports, about this whole movement. And so, the idea was born.

I've always been a firm believer that the universe works in certain ways where things happen for a reason. I had always wanted to do something for kids, but had no idea that it would be an educational coloring book. A few years ago I started working with a publicist in Massachusetts, my home state, and the energy and excitement around my story was contagious.

Through a friend, I was put in touch with the woman in charge of this organization called Color, Learn & Play. They specialize in educational coloring books for young athletes and were excited to tap into this niche of disabled sports. Together, we pieced together the activities, the stories and the idea became a reality. With any project such as one like this, it is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and to forget that you may fail, that it may not come to fruition.

But for me, failure has never been a good option. With persistence, patience, and sheer determination, the final prototype arrived in a box a few weeks ago!! And now this coloring book will be featured at a local youth literature festival and hopefully many other schools, pediatric hospitals, early childhood centers, recreational sport programs and more! Check out my website to see the book and learn more!

What's next?
Preparing for Worlds! With World Championships being in January 2011 for us this year, there is a lot to prepare for. Typically, January is our "off-season" where we are training but not racing, and certainly not peaking. The scheduling of this makes it challenging, but we are ready for the challenge! My training has been going very well so far, and it will be important over these next few months to maintain that and to fine tune.

As an athlete, I find one of the most important things to keep in mind is to only worry about the "stuff" you can control. If you worry unnecessarily about things beyond your control, it will destroy you. So, January, I'm ready for you, are you ready for Team USA?

2 Years Until Opening Ceremonies for London

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It's hard to believe, but today marks the 2-year mark until the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. I certainly hope to be competing there and bringing home Gold!! I wanted to encourage those of you who are potentially interested in attending the Games to register for ticketing information ASAP at the following website:
https://www.tickets.london2012.com/member/registration

Wrap Up Blog from Ghana

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Maybe it’s a generational thing, but there is an overwhelming majority of friends and people my age who have this burning desire to change the world. The flipside to this, however, is the overwhelming majority of the general population who thinks that people like that are overly ambitious and set unrealistic goals. But, the truth is, our team of five – Jean Driscoll, Marissa Siebel, Jennifer Scott, Tom Cameron and myself, went to Ghana and changed the world. Even more so than that, the world changed us.

I waited a few days after returning to write this wrap-up blog of our trip, because there was a lot to process; a lot to think about. The best way for me to explain what these nine days in Ghana meant for the athletes, for Paralympic sport, for Ghana, for me, and ultimately for the world is to explain, or begin to explain the impact on all of those levels.

For the athletes.

For the athletes, the impact of our trip was felt on many levels. The athlete who got to feel the wind in their faces for their very first time as they whizzed around the track on a handcycle, or the athlete who had never previously seen an airplane other than a small speck in the sky (the track was located quite close to the airport, so we had some low-flying planes overhead while training). The athlete whose family now talks to them because of her athletic success. There was the athlete who received a used everyday wheelchair who came up to me and said, thank you for one of the happiest days of my life. I wrote about the story of him receiving this chair on my own website blog, www.anjaliforberpratt.com/blog However, when that was written, there was a critical piece that was missing. Yes, those words that he said to me were absolutely heartwarming, especially since he was receiving my old wheelchair! But, I feel I need to explain the rest of the story.

In the middle of Accra, Ghana, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. It’s a good thing that I’m a person with a disability, with a natural tendency to adapt. Something disabled sports has taught me is that there is absolutely nothing a little duct tape and foam can’t fix…though maybe in my wiser years I may add a few other things to that list including zipties. Regardless, without this mentality and attitude, this sense of adventure, this sense of engineering and ingenuity, very little can get accomplished. It’s the moments where you have this out of mind, out of body experience and for me, I just start laughing in my head thinking to myself, gosh, if only people back home in the U.S. could SEE what we are doing right now, or how we just fixed that wheelchair or how I just made a pair of hard gloves with boiling water that was carried on someone’s head from a village restaurant… if only…

In the moment, it is sometimes hard to appreciate these times, but I have learned to just let that laughter in my head happen, and then I struggle a few days later to explain it in my blog here! The other part of the culture is that nothing is absolute. There is no predictable process or order to how things get done. I know that sounds vague, perhaps hard to comprehend, but it’s true. As humans, particularly as Americans, I feel we naturally look for patterns and predictable ways of being. Guess what, that doesn’t exist in other cultures. For example, even something as simple as ordering a meal at the hotel restaurant, you would think that if the menu says “vegetarian pizza” and lists all the ingredients that if you order it for one meal and perhaps order later that same day, or even the next day that it would be somewhat similar. Nope. Not a chance! That vegetarian pizza came out the first time with a spicy sauce, some veggies on it… the next time it came out with some sweet sauce, some cabbage, other vegetables…the third time it came out with hardly any sauce, some potatoes and onions. Perhaps some of it is artifact of unique cooks, but this prevailing lack-of-consistent-process permeates all of daily life and business. And so, it becomes a lesson in patience.

Coupled with this lack of process is the bartering system, you barter for everything. Alan and Patsy, two Missionaries who are with Joni and Friends and Wheels for the World, shared numerous stories of how a business deal ended with being paid in chickens. It’s just the way of life. So, back to my friend who received my old everyday wheelchair and it was the happiest day of his life…

The last day, we were stripping down his old chair, that only had three functioning wheels because we were missing a critical nut that only costs about $0.10 in the states and couldn’t create something to make it workable, so we did the next best thing and use the parts from it to help improve the functionality of other chairs. Poor Marissa has stripped everything down, is covered in wheelchair grease head to toe, and then my little friend pipes up saying, no we can’t give his frame to one of the other athletes, he has to give it back. What? Give it back?? Mind you, it has no bolts on it at this point—give it back, what do you mean? We then find out that in order for him to come to the training camp in Accra, he bartered with a guy in his village to use that wheelchair for the week, because day to day, he just crawls on his hands.

Well, now that made the “happiest day of my life” comment take on a whole new meaning! And, our team members had to work furiously to return this borrowed wheelchair to working order! (Which we did!)

The athletes were broken into an elite group and a newbie group, and let me tell you, the potential these athletes have is incredible. Their sheer strength is impressive, largely from having to crawl around, push on rough terrain just to get around--- there’s your built in strength and conditioning component! But, broader than that, training at this facility at El Wak Stadium, Ghanaians took notice of what we were doing, able-bodied athletes, coaches, military, the general public. The interest was there, people would gather to just watch us training, to ask questions, to come and see it for themselves. We created a Paralympic buzz! Even that scene itself was chaotic--- I was training with the elite racers, dodging runners, coaches, discuses, javelins, futbols (soccer balls), the curious onlooker who was in a dazed state of amazement that they just happened to wander onto the track without looking… and we didn’t have any major accidents!

For Paralympic Sport.

We packed our days like it was a can of sardines. There was not a single moment of the day where we weren’t doing something—even if it was just processing or thinking about the next meeting or thinking about how to fix that wheel with what we had with us. In between the 6am and 3pm training session, we had meetings with various government and local officials, organizations and representatives. I cannot even begin to describe the power these meetings had. First of all, it was getting people to talk to each other, to talk about Paralympic sport, to talk about disability, to talk about the Olympics and Paralympics. We used this analogy a lot within our own group --- we were the connectors in a giant life-size game of connect the dots. We are not the answer for a sustainable Paralympic sport program, and we knew that going into it. And, to be honest, we can’t be—that would be wrong and unethical to walk into a country and just create what I want. It has to come from within, it has to have roots and a foundation there.

Our diverse team of expertise was able to fill this void, however, and to really be helpful connectors for these organizations serving people with disabilities in Ghana, for the government, for the National Sports Council, for various athletic associations. We had Jean Driscoll, an extraordinarily accomplished Paralympic athlete, successful business woman, a truly exceptional leader and ambassador for sport and for disability. We had Marissa Siebel who is a trained athletic trainer with exceptional knowledge of additional Paralympic sports, a passion for life that you could just taste in the air. We had Jennifer Scott, a former dual sport U of I wheelchair athlete herself who also has the ability to help us all to think a bit more out of the box. We had Tom Cameron, wheelchair race organizer for the Bloomsday 12k in Spokane, WA, an engineer with a keen eye and tremendous skill in fixing anything, even using rocks to bang some fenders out in place of the rubber mallet that, sadly, did not make it on the trip!

And, while Jean was involved with Paralympic sport in the past, I was able to provide some clarity and guidance to current operations within the International Paralympic Committee, the nitty gritty nuts and bolts for how to move on to the next stage and ultimately to the world stage. Together, our team was a unique blend of talents, expertise all uniting around the same passion.

The meetings we had were, in my opinion, hugely successful. We met with the President of the National Sports Council, for all of Ghana, multiple times. He took such an interest he came to observe the training sessions and followed up multiple times with us! Some of the highlights including meeting with the President of the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled, the entire board from the National Council on Persons with Disability, the Minister of Education, Youth & Sport for all of Ghana, the President of the Ghana Paralympic Committee and also representatives from the able-bodied cyclist associations and athletic coaches. In each of these meetings, the morale was high and the passion and drive to develop Paralympic sport prevailed. A huge asset to help move this forward is the amazing masterpiece that sits in Tema, the All Africa Disability Center that was built by Alan and Patsy. When we walked into this beautiful facility, we could literally hear the crowd roaring, see the scoreboard lit up, picture the wheelchair basketball tournament going on. This will be a Paralympic Training site for athletes with all disabilities in Ghana, and for all of Africa! When we showed this facility to the athletes, they were awestruck and honestly didn’t believe that something so beautiful could exist for them, as people with disabilities. I encourage you to just take a moment to think about that.

For Ghana.

By now, you should be able to see what these endeavors have the power to do for Ghana. Having these meetings, getting the general population with and without disabilities excited about Paralympic sport was amazing to be a part of. One of our last meetings was with the Board from the National Council on Persons with Disability, and it was in that meeting where I feel everybody began to realize what the power of sport truly is. Sport unifies us all. Sport provides an opportunity for individuals to come together regardless of race, political background, ability status, gender. Sport is unique in that it transcends these boundaries and barriers imposed by society and allows for the focus to be on the activity itself, the sportsmanship, the finish line, or the end of the match. Deeper than that is the honor of representing one’s country that sport can also provide. For people with disabilities in Ghana, who have previously been excluded from many affordances of society such as an education or pursuing a career, sport is one way where this can change.

For me.

Thankfully, I have some amazing mentors in my life. People who take me for me, who tells me like it is and who are supportive of all of my crazy endeavors and dreams. To all of these people, thank you.

The two main takeaways I had from this trip are the power of the ripple effect and the importance of being true to oneself.

The power of the ripple effect, was something my advisor, Dr. Aragon, had to help to point out to me. The most memorable moments of this trip were being able to ignite a fire within people –athletes with disabilities to realize they have athletic potential in sport and in life. It is absolutely, indescribably cool when you are there to witness that fire igniting deep within somebody or to even be that fire-starter. And that’s what I get to do so naturally in a disability sport setting just by being me. However, there is an element of not wanting to sell myself short by working only with disabled athletes around the world---this is something that I feel is true for me personally. Though this is certainly not true for all, and I admire very much those who are able to work with one population every day, it’s just not something I would be able to do. I learned that in fact the effect of our work is so much bigger than just that. It is the power of the ripple effect at work. It was something we talked about when we were there, even this Ghana project evolved from something bigger than just Jean to include our team being there. The power of one person’s dream becoming bigger than any one person is overwhelming. But, the truth is that we all need people to help to point out our impact sometimes, the effect of the fire that is started or of that ripple effect is often hard to fathom or even recognize ourselves. Looking back, I realize now that the impact of what we were doing in Ghana was so much bigger than just helping athletes with disabilities. We were changing the world by changing perceptions and educating others about disability and about Paralympic sport.

Lastly, intertwined with all of these amazing experiences in Accra, is the reminder of being true to oneself. This goes without much explanation, as I feel this message comes through just by being able to articulate and describe these experiences. But it is something that is important to be reminded of!

Medasi Ghana, for a life changing trip!

Day 5 - Happy Days

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I’ve been told that doctoral students aren’t supposed to try to change the world, at least not with their dissertation, but I’ve never been one who likes traditional rules—and I am changing the world every second I am here. The examples are transformational on so many levels, for them, for me, for the bystanders who gather around to watch and ask questions, for the country of Ghana, for world. The woman who was shunned from her village and her family because of her disability--- was exposed to sport and now is the breadwinner in the family, and her family talks to her. She is invited to family meetings. The student who thanks me every day for coming here to teach him. The determination and drive is there—he just needs the tools which we are providing. He will get a university education, I have no doubt in my mind of that – he told top government officials he will bring home a gold medal for Ghana in the Paralympics – and he still hasn’t been in a racing chair yet!! The guy rolling around on 3 wheels instead of four because a $.10 nut is missing. The athletes who crawl around – but are participating in daily life—using homemade scooter boards, flip flops on their hands or just dragging themselves along the dirt roads to get to where they need to be. These individuals do it every day, just to participate in life.

All of THAT is life changing—especially when I can relate to it on so many levels, and when I am one of the ones who is providing the tools to these individuals to solve these problems, and the counseling to the policy makers and government officials to sustain these changes and to develop from within the country.

There’s plenty of stuff all there that can and will take a while to process, these issues but I know that’s just part of the process. Many of those things mentioned above are not new to me, so certainly I gain new perspective and work through some of it a bit more during/after a trip like this, but it’s not entirely foreign. But that is some of the scene going on here.

Today was another noteworthy day to report, and it’s only halfway over! The highlights from today included an amazing meeting with the President of the Ghana Paralympic Committee and his board. They want what we want, what the athletes want, what we have been dreaming about. They are so excited to have a relationship with us to make it a reality. We left that meeting giddy, all of us did! Forging international relationships in a very siloed society and system is never easy, but we have been tremendously successful. And the best part about it is, we are helping to make connections between so many key stakeholders from different disability-related organizations, different sport organizations, different segments of government, who should, and now will be. It is magical to go into these meetings and to leave with new agreements and partnerships all working towards the same vision. This is what Paralympic Sport can be about. Just like Olympic sport, Paralympic Sport is about nations coming together and working towards a united world, a world of opportunity for people with disabilities. As a Paralympian, I honestly feel it is our duty to pay it forward and to help provide these opportunities for others, both domestically and internationally. If we focus all our efforts domestically, then the sport itself does not continue to grow and sustain. If we focus all our efforts internationally, then our nation does not continue to grow and sustain. There is a balance that must be struck. But, as an ambassador for the Paralympic movement, it is bigger than just getting ourselves as Americans to the world stage, it is about getting the world behind it too. And in places such as Ghana, it is sport that can be uniting, that can literally change these people’s lives and change the country and change the world for the better. But, more than that, the rest of the world can learn from Ghana too; there is so much good going on here, so much that the rest of the world is oblivious to.

The true highlight of the day, however, which inspired the title for this blog, was being able to give the equipment to the athletes. To give the everyday wheelchairs AND the racing chairs. I had one individual, who coincidentally received my old wheelchair – and we both were wearing orange today (pictures will come once I get a chance to upload), had a smile ear to ear just radiating off of his face and he said, “thank you, thank you so much for one of the happiest days of my life! Thank you to you, your friends, and your country.” WOW. It doesn’t get much more amazing than that. And, he’s my own little MacGyver. As a kid, I always got in trouble for getting a new chair and then instantly taking it apart, to understand how it worked, ditch the brakes and seatbelt and other unnecessary accessories, and to make it customized for me. Well, this guy, after receiving an everyday chair and a racing chair comes up to me and asks, how will I get tools? Where do I get allen keys? (We were working on his compensator and I was teaching him about the nuts and bolts to always check etc.). A while passes, and then his compensator was loose and I needed to take it all apart, but was lacking a critical tool in my tool bag. (To my teammates, yes I admit that, but in my defense it was an Eagle chair so I was not accustomed to certain Barry-specialty parts and the appropriate sizes). I am getting frustrated with this equipment issue, and the fact that I’m in the middle of Accra, Ghana, we can’t get replacement $.10 washers, we can’t find the right size wrench, and so we have racing chairs that took days to arrive that aren’t being used. Even as an athlete, the days when your equipment tests you are challenging and frustrating days, we all have them, we all struggle with them. So, as I’m frustrated with one issue, and dealing with other equipment issues too that we are discovering—the warped wheel, the fender that needs banging (and no, I did not pack a rubber mallet, so we used rocks). I am frustrated, but just doing the best you can with what you have --- that’s what I’ve always been taught to do. And then here comes my little MacGyver with the perfect size wrench I was missing and he started taking it apart because at this point he knew what needed to be fixed. I ask him, where did you find this? Since we had already asked one of the drivers to take the racing chair to the gas station mechanic to see if they might have a tool to help--- he said, drivers have tools, I went and asked our driver for the right size wrench! After witnessing that, it was all okay! And, the other happy ending to this story was the other woman who came up to give me a huge hug and also said thank you for the happiest day in her life.

Not bad for a day's work.

Day 4 - Spirit of Adventure

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We piled into Alan & Patsy’s van, they are the two missionaries here with Joni & Friends who Jean has worked with in the past. It is through Joni & Friends and the Wheels for the World Program that initially brought Jean to Ghana nine years ago. They are the two most loving, compassionate people you will ever meet in your life. For those unfamiliar with the program, they send wheelchairs all over the world to people in need. But it is so much more than that, the distribution process occurs over a period of about a week and they bring a team of PT students, OT students, mechanics and technicians with them. Instead of just giving any old wheelchair to anybody, the individual is assessed and a proper fitting is done and an appropriate cushion is made etc. The wheelchairs are all donated at various points throughout the U.S. and then sent to prisons where the prisoners restore them to working order, fix any broken parts and then they are shipped out. It is Alan who woke up in the wee hours of the morning and drew the center on a piece of paper, he had no idea what it fully would mean, but the vision was there, the vision of the All Africa Disability Center. Together with Patsy, the two of them made that a reality. As we piled into their van to drive through the nightlife of Accra, it struck me, where does this spirit of adventure come from? I know it is not for everybody, there are some people who would literally be unable to function coming to a place like this, a place that is perhaps far out of their comfort zone, a place where the process is so hard to understand, because it is constantly changing. And yet, this same place, is the one that excites something deep within us who are here, a place where you can see hope, a place where you can make a difference every minute of every day, a place where human potential is oozing out of every corner if your eyes are open, a place where there are no complaints because all you have to do is look down the street and you will see five or more people significantly worse off than you. It is risky, it is adventurous, but it is wondrous.

But this did get me thinking, where does this spirit of adventure come from? Are we born with it? Is it something we learn along the way from our parents, our upbringing, our own experiences? Why is it that some people have it, and others don’t? For me, I like to think that perhaps it was a survival tool. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, you made fun out of even the worst situation, look at it as a learning adventure or an expedition. As an adoptee, perhaps this was something that I just learned from that early age in order to make it in the big scary world. I mean how many other babies do you know who would jump on a plane at 2.5 months old headed for the US from India without their parents?? Just saying :-)

But, I also think that credit ought to be given where credit is due. My parents encouraged and nurtured that sense of adventure in all of us. From made up puppet shows to fortresses in the living room to allowing us to go off with the neighborhood kids and climb trees and literally, “go on adventure!” as we would all parade out the door – had they not let us do that, I may not be where I am here today, in the middle of Accra, Ghana on an epic adventure with some amazing people.

Abbreviated Day 3 & 4 Thoughts

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We were reflecting tonight on how jam packed our days are, when they start at 5am and you go until about 1am, you fit an awful lot in!!

I don’t have time to do a complete blog tonight, because it is 12:10am and we are leaving at 5am, because WE FINALLY GOT THE EQUIPMENT OUT OF CUSTOMS TODAY!!!!!! Very late tonight we got it out, and so none of the racing chairs have been assembled or anything, so we need to get an early start so that the equipment can all be ready to go by the time the athletes arrive for the 630am training session.

In a nutshell, Ghana is amazing. We went to church on Sunday with the entire team. It was a fantastic experience and we had the opportunity to visit with the pastor afterwards. We then took all the athletes TO the All Africa Disability Center that was built for them. To witness them seeing this beautiful facility for the very first time, was special. There were tears, they sang the Ghanaian National Anthem loud and proud upon entering. It was truly magical. Underneath all of that, however, the deeply rooted mistrust and poor treatment of people with disabilities in this culture could be seen. Some wondered whether this was all a hoax, whether this beautiful building was going to be given to them and then taken away. Things like that are very real here, and very sad.

Our meetings with government officials could not be going any better. They are a) showing up unannounced seeking US out b) arriving EARLY (something that simply does NOT happen in this culture) and c) collaborating with each other! We all just run through the halls doing our own happy dances. To be a small part of orchestrating some of the wonderful conversations that are occurring, and to be able to provide the tools and resources to truly help them to develop Paralympic sport, is incredible. Today, I was able to talk to the Chief of the National Sports Council all about getting their athletes IPC Licensed, the plausibility of hosting an IPC sanctioned meet here in Ghana, partnering with the local athletics club, so many things. The interest in Paralympic Sport is growing exponentially every hour we are here.

I cannot wait to explain more, but it is important to rest for the next 4 hours before getting up to go at it again! Pictures and more elaborate blog to come later.

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