Paralympics

‘Power of choice’: Melissa Stockwell on a Paralympic dream deferred

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Melissa Stockwell, a Paralympic triathlon bronze medalist and the first female U.S. soldier to lose a limb in active combat, reflected on the Tokyo Games being postponed to 2021 in a first-person essay. Stockwell’s autobiography, “The Power of Choice: My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion,” is due out in July

Two Tuesdays ago, my teammates on the USA Paratriathlon team got to the pool at the usual time of 7:30 a.m. and swam in the state of the art swimming pool at the Olympic Training Center as we did every morning. We talked about how lucky we were that we were still able to swim because so many other pools around the nation had closed due to Covid, and we felt a sense of pride as we got out of the pool that day. We had a sense of calm knowing that when it came to the OTC, athletes always came first, and they would do everything they could for us.

Fast forward 12 hours, when we all got the call that, because of government mandate, the OTC would be closing its doors and all the facilities that we used daily were no longer available to us for at least four weeks. It was a shock as we all rushed to get our belongings out of our lockers, but something that we were confident we could adapt to. We talked with our coach and made training plans that involved biking and running outside or on a trainer inside and setting up a home gym to include swimming-based strength workouts.

A week later, it was announced that the Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed until 2021. I think we all knew it was a possibility, but the thought of it actually happening seemed improbable. Not only the impact of the Games in general, but we had all been training with an end game in sight. Tokyo 2020, and we were so close, almost as if the finish line was in reach. And while the decision made by the IOC was the right decision because health always comes first, it made many athletes, including myself, reassess their life timelines, and if waiting another year was really in the cards.

For almost all athletes, an Olympic or Paralympic dream takes sacrifices. Sometimes it’s living paycheck to paycheck or time away from your family to train or race. Maybe it’s putting off having a family until after the Games or hanging on day by day as an aging athlete hopes that their body holds up for one more Games. One more year can feel like nothing to some athletes but an eternity to others.

Personally, I moved my husband and two young kids out to Colorado in early 2019 to train at the Olympic Training Center in hopes of making it to Tokyo. Along the way I turned 40, opened a prosthetic business with my husband and limited my speaking engagements so I could train and give my Tokyo dreams a shot. We would sometimes count down the months until I could be at our new office more, not spend weeks at a time away from my kids and pick up more speaking opportunities to bring in more income. Not to mention a body that feels it age every morning!

But when I really thought about it, those were all fleeting thoughts. Ones that immediately popped to the surface but were quickly overtaken by the desire to see a dream through to completion. One year, that was it! And I quickly chose to take this opportunity and do the best I could with it. Spend more time with my family, taking on home projects I’ve often put off and doing my best to help in the community where I can while maintaining my training as best I can.

When I lost my leg in Iraq 15 years ago, it was something I never could have imagined. It was an obstacle that came into my life, and I had to choose how to deal with it. Instead of choosing to feel sorry for the loss, I chose to say, “Ok, ALL I lost was one leg, now let’s get back to living.”

While this situation is far different, it is yet so similar. None of us ever imagined we would have these immediate dreams taken from us and postponed a year. None of us ever imagined we would be sitting in our homes week after week on a stay-at-home order. But we are, and we all have the power of choice on how we deal with it. That’s the beauty of life. Having a choice with how we deal with unknown obstacles that come our way.

My book, “Power of Choice,” is one of choosing to persevere and to triumph over tragedy. It’s my own story about how I chose to take losing a leg and turn it into a life where I’ve done more with one leg than I ever would have done with two.

So while this postponement was not in our plans, let’s choose to make the most of it. Focus on our health and being thankful for it. For us athletes, it’s knowing that even though the year has changed, the dream hasn’t. And when Tokyo does happen, it will be such a celebration of sport and bringing the world together. I have no doubt it will be worth the wait.

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Blake Leeper, Olympic hopeful double amputee, has prosthetics ruled ineligible

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Blake Leeper, a double amputee who finished fifth in the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships 400m, had his prosthetic legs ruled ineligible for major international able-bodied competition such as the Olympics.

World Athletics made the ruling as part of a months-long case that will go on. Leeper confirmed Thursday morning a Washington Post report that he is appealing.

A World Athletics review group “concluded that Mr. Leeper had not established that his prostheses do not provide him with an overall competitive advantage,” according to a World Athletics statement. “Under the current rule [introduced in 2015], the burden of proof lies with the athlete to show that prostheses do not provide them with an overall competitive advantage.”

Leeper, a 2012 Paralympic medalist, sprints fast enough to be a contender for the U.S. Olympic team, should he be deemed eligible. A fifth-place finisher in the 400m at nationals usually makes an Olympic or world team for the 4x400m relay.

But when Leeper recorded that finish in Des Moines last summer, he was running under conditional allowance while his World Athletics case was ongoing. He was not ultimately selected to race at worlds last fall.

World Athletics said then that his nationals results would not be ratified because he had not proven that his legs did not provide “an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.”

Leeper’s case is reminiscent of South African Oscar Pistorius.

Pistorius won a legal battle to race on his prosthetics at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics in the 400m with a personal best of 45.07. He was eliminated in the semifinals at both meets.

Leeper lowered his personal best to 44.38 seconds at nationals, a time that would have easily made the 2016 Olympic team.

“They keep changing the rules,” Leeper, who has been coached by, among others, Super Bowl champion wide receiver Willie Gault, said last summer. “For somebody to try to dictate and tell me how tall I should be or whatever I should be running on I think is just really unfair.”

In 2018, the International Paralympic Committee said Leeper was running on invalid blades for its record purposes because he had yet to be classified under a new maximum allowable standing height (MASH) formula.

Michael Norman, the world’s fastest 400m sprinter last year, said he had no issue racing with Leeper. But others in the past, when Pistorius became the first double amputee to race at worlds and the Olympics, said they wouldn’t have been so sure had Pistorius been running the kind of times that Leeper posted in recent years.

“Walk a mile in my legs,” Leeper said of those who believe he has a competitive advantage. “Understand the things that I go through as a double-leg amputee. There’s some days my legs are swollen, they’re sore, they’re bleeding, they’re bruised. I can’t even have the strength to put ’em on to walk to the bathroom.

“Anybody that faces a disability, to actually look them in the face and say they have an advantage is just crazy to me. I guarantee if that’s the case, you’ll see a lot more people amputating their legs and coming and trying to qualify for the U.S. trials.”

Leeper was born without lower legs and has used prosthetics since he was a toddler. He earned 200m bronze and 400m silver (behind Pistorius) in his class at the 2012 London Paralympics, then served a cocaine ban.

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Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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