Archive for December, 2007
A few years ago I watched a Seinfeld episode with my parents. At the mall, the gang couldn’t find a parking spot. Someone suggested the handicapped spot. Another said that you couldn’t park there. Kramer said, “Those people don’t drive.” I thought my father was going to fall on the floor he was laughing so hard. He’s on the inside. He’s allowed to laugh. He and my family experienced my injury, which is often harder on others than the individual. They experience the trauma, but only the individual can improve the situation. He deserved to laugh, but then again so did the rest of us.
I grew up on MASH. If you don’t laugh you’ll cry, but if you don’t say anything, it’ll just eat you from inside. Laughter is good. Humor is great. Make it funny. To make it funny, there has to be a bit of honesty, which is often in far too short supply in our lives.
Honesty carried the day last year when I visited Aspen. I shared a cup of coffee with the mother of one of my friends. Her boyfriend joined us midway through. He’s a big guy, formerly from Southie, wears a full-length coat and Ugs. Not thirty seconds into it he says to me, “So how’d you get f’ed up?” Talk about an honest question—no time for beating around the bush. From some people this would have turned me off completely, but this guy’s question said, “There’s a pink elephant in the room and I’m going to name it.”
Generally, I don’t like to be known for how I had my injury. I think it’s an easy way to make me separate. Many people ask because they want me to tell them that what happened to me can’t happen to them, but there’s also a genuine curiosity. Sometimes it’s all that people can see. This guy acknowledged that he couldn’t see anything else. He wanted to know so he could stop thinking about it.
I’ve always wanted people to see beyond my wheelchair. I think, why can’t they see me for who I am, but that just exposes the hypocrite in me. One time, I worked out on the gym on a Sunday. It was the middle of winter. Most people skied, snow-shoed or otherwise enjoyed the outdoors, but a small group of us pushed some weight around. One woman had two prosthetic legs. It is easy to think of an Ahab, peg-leg character when imagining a prosthetic, but this woman’s legs were carbon fiber—sleek, shiny, and even sexy. She was a double AK or above the knee amputee. She had no knees, yet walked effortlessly.
When I saw this woman, I’d been reading a book about Hugh Herr, a climber who lost both of his legs to frostbite. A storm had trapped him and a climbing buddy on Mt. Washington. By the time they were rescued, frostbite had damaged Hugh’s legs to the point where they had to be amputated. Eventually, he returned to climbing, where he received the highest praise that any disabled athlete can receive. People claimed that he had an unfair advantage on the prosthetics that he developed. They were much lighter than regular legs, making climbing easier, at least in the eyes of some.
Hugh’s story was mesmerizing. When I saw the woman in the gym, I wondered if she was a climber. I wondered if, like Hugh, she’d lost her legs to frostbite. I couldn’t think of anything else. Maybe I could say, “nice legs.” I get that all the time. “Cool gear.” “Look at that rig.” It’s a safe middle ground as people comment on my monoski, off-road chair, or racing chair. It’s well intentioned and far better than the, “Are you guys racing?” as two wheelchairs go down the street—obviously not racing—but I expected so much more from myself. I expected so much more, but all I knew was what not to say. “Nice legs,” was probably not appropriate. “Did you lose your legs climbing?” “Do you know Hugh Herr,” (as if everyone with a disability knows everyone else). I couldn’t see anything, but her legs and by extension disability. I couldn’t say anything.
I finished a set of flys. The woman walked past me and said, “That’s a lot of weight.” I mumbled, “Thank you,” but I really wanted to ask if she lost her legs climbing. I wanted to share my newfound knowledge of Hugh. It’s the equivalent of approaching someone with a broken arm and saying, my uncle broke his leg when he fell off the roof. Uh huh. Not really a conversation starter.
I never did talk to that woman, and I’m on the inside. I couldn’t get past her story or what I imagined her story was, because I knew too many ways that I could offend her, but that guy in Aspen hadn’t offended me at all when he asked, “How’d you get f’ed up?” Maybe there was something there. Maybe we’re just too darned uptight. Maybe we need to ask a question and want to know the answer and to give the other person the benefit of understanding what we’re trying to say even if we don’t really know.
“Those people don’t drive.” That would make life so much easier. Then everyone would be like us and we’d always know what to say.1 comment
Without war I wouldn’t have had a chance to compete. Don’t get me wrong. I had a skiing accident. I was never in the armed services. I did not sustain an injury while preserving our freedom. I simply owe a debt of gratitude to those who did. Military veterans are largely responsible for disabled sport, for the Paralympics, and for my seamless transition to an active lifestyle after my accident almost nineteen years ago.
Last week, I tried to return part of the favor. At the Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado, I coached some recently disabled veterans. Almost 200 Wounded Warriors, mostly amputees representing a small percentage of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, learned to ski, race, or teach. Seeing the recently disabled made the war more personal. I wondered if these newly injured individuals might bring significant change as their predecessors had.
On July 29th 1948 the Paralympics were born, though at the time they were called the Stoke-Mandeville Games, the brainchild, of neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttman. Guttman believed that physical activity could improve the health and lives of the disabled vets. Before World War II people with spinal cord injuries had a less than 20% chance of survival. Most died in their beds from sores or infections. Guttman said, “When I arrived at Stoke, those with spinal cord injuries were thought of as hopeless cripples.” He changed their outlook with sport.
The Stoke-Mandeville Games began the same day as the London Olympics. After a twelve-year hiatus for World War II, it was a rebirth for the Olympics, and an opportunity for the disabled veterans. The events paralleled each other, separated by about a one-hour car drive. Parallel led to Paralympics. It’s not an event that is almost the Olympics, but one that happens on a parallel plane. The hopes and expectations are just as great. The comments on human strength and ability are just as poignant.
For many disabled athletes, Stoke-Mandeville remains a right of passage. I’ve competed on the track there twice. The barracks housing, communal showers, disco tent, lawn bowls, and spilled beer smell on the track’s third turn, as patrons sip pints and watch the races, make it distinctive. Damp, penetrating winds usually howl, though one year I competed during the British week long summer. It’s then that you realize there’s no air conditioning, and that you are lucky to win the ice cube lottery if you have one floating in your water.
Our lives are much easier now. When I visited Stoke, I worried about track surface and wind conditions. Would I be able to go fast? Would I go fast enough to qualify for the Paralympics? After World War II, they worried about staying alive. Guttman believed that sport could improve the lives of the newly disabled. His hypothesis is obvious now. We take it for granted, but most of us don’t understand the debt of opportunity that we owe to those who went before us.
When I broke my back in a skiing accident, I didn’t miss one ski season. Less than a year after becoming paralyzed, I began to ski in a monoski. The equipment existed for me because of the Vietnam War. Talk about an unpopular war. Talk about young Americans, who wrapped themselves in patriotism only to be spit on when they returned. These are the men that I have to thank for maintaining my quality of life, which I so often say, has not diminished because of the accident. In fact, it might have increased depending on how I choose to look at it. I can’t walk, but I never would have been the best in the world at anything. I won World Championships in both skiing and wheelchair racing. I wouldn’t have met Presidents. I wouldn’t have competed on an international level for fifteen years.
I owe a debt to people like Kirk Bauer, whose organization Disabled Sports USA, has organized the Ski Spectacular and numerous grassroots initiatives for the last forty years. I owe a debt to people like Jack Benedick, who led the US Disabled Ski Team and strove for integration and equality—not only did he strive for it, he fought for it. He’s the man who said in my first meeting with the team, “fourth place doesn’t count.” We were about medals, about winning, about being the best—not the best in some separate, disabled way, but in a way that people had to take notice because few if any expected as much from themselves as we did under Jack. I owe a debt to Jim Martinson, who developed the very first monoski that I ever used. My monoski came in a box. Jim’s first monoski came in a picture in his mind. I’m sure it was an incomplete picture. I’m sure that others told him he was crazy. I’m glad he didn’t listen. Jim’s transition into the disabled world was far from seamless because he had to invent his new path. For me, years later, not only did I have the equipment to continue to ski, race, water ski, handcycle, play basketball and tennis, but I had role models and heroes like Jim. Vietnam vets modeled their rehabilitation after the Germans and Austrians following World War II. They skied. Then they started ski schools and race teams. We followed and benefited.
Guttman believed sports could improve the health and lives of disabled vets. It’s unfortunate, but the need continues. Numerous newly injured veterans will attempt to improve on the work of people like Kirk, Jack, Jim and many others. We still have yet to achieve Guttman’s concept of full integration. Paralympic sport remains largely obscure. In many instances, the disabled are separate from society. Maybe we will get an infusion of spirit from this new group of youngsters. I don’t know. What I do know is that we have a debt to those who went before us. We have a debt to live up to their legacy for the gifts and opportunities that they gave us.