The Biggest Win for Me as a 2016 Paralympic Athlete
In just a few days the 2016 Paralympics will commence in Rio, two weeks after the Olympic Games. And for the first time in history, the Paralympics will be broadcast live on network television in the United States, with over 66 hours of coverage. It will also be the first time that mainstream America will see the disability community not for what we can’t do, but what we can.
So often, the disability community only receives this kind of national exposure during a telethon fundraiser for medical research or “the care of those less fortunate.” While I do not want to discount the importance of those efforts, the adverse side effect is that the disability community is only seen for our perceived shortcomings.
Our community is often misunderstood. Even the name “disability community” sets us apart and implies that we are without ability, or have lesser abilities. I was born with spina bifida. I have been paralyzed from my waist down for my entire life. Rarely, if ever, have I felt there was something wrong with me, or that I was less than others. Like everyone else, we in the disability community have some things we are good at, and other things that we are not.
I was born just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a difficult time in Russia, and spent the first six years of my life in a Russian orphanage. There was little food or medical treatment for orphans like me, and I was sickly and malnourished.
Then, at the age of 6, I was adopted and brought to America. To improve my health, my new parents enrolled me in every kind of sports program possible. I took to swimming like a fish to water. I tried rock climbing, gymnastics, basketball, hockey — and racing. While it took determination and imagination to figure out how I could do these activities without the use of my legs, I was able to participate in most, and I excelled at many. I began to put on weight and grow healthier. Sports literally saved my life.
And I didn’t just survive, I thrived. At the age of 9 I started participating in competitive sports. At 15, I competed in my first Paralympics in Athens and brought home silver and bronze medals. I began winning more races and breaking world records. Today, I am proud to be considered one of the top athletes in the world.
People have commented that they are “inspired” by my story. But these compliments, made with the best intentions, can sometimes miss the point. “Inspired” often means they feel sorry for my condition and what I went through in my early life, and feel they should count their own blessings for what they have. But what they are missing is that I am who I am today not in spite of my disabilities, but because of them.
All of us competing in the Olympics and Paralympics have had our own unique challenges, our own strengths and talents that we have nurtured, and our own weaknesses and disabilities that we have overcome. The games in Rio are a test of our ability to push physical and mental limitations, and a testament to humanity’s indomitable spirit to adapt and excel.
In Rio, I will be competing in the 100, 400, 800, 1,500, 5000, 4×400-meter relay and marathon — more events than anyone has ever raced in either an Olympic or Paralympic games. Of course, like any athlete, I want to win. But for me, the bigger win is just competing in the games with my friends, and having the chance to inspire others — not conditionally, because of my disability, but through my own talents and successes as an athlete and as a person.
Read more of Tatyana’s amazing story in her book, “Ya Sama! Moments from My Life.”