Paralympics: Let us now praise famous women

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 05, 2016 # Adaptive Sports

Enough of those stupid political conventions! It’s time for the Olympics! Or more to the point, the Paralympics, the quadrennial world stage where athletes with disabilities can speak the common language of sports and excel in ways that, for the last fifty-plus years, has reaffirmed the obvious – we are just like you.

A little history. In the early 1940’s, a British neurologist named Ludwig Guttman, soon to become Sir Ludwig Guttman, had the then-brilliant notion that paralyzed soldiers from the war shouldn’t just lie around in institutions like invalids but could profit from athletic exercise and competition. At the time many experts thought people with paralysis would exhaust their frail bodies or get hurt from exercise. Guttman thought this was balderdash and got patients out of bed, outside, and competing in sports like archery. In 1948, he created the first Stoke Mandeville Games (named after the rehab center he ran) where, for the first time in history, SCI athletes competed and won medals. In 1960, he took these games to Rome to follow that year’s Olympic Games. Voile! The Paralympic Games were born and the rest is sports history. Thank you, Sir Ludwig.

This is all a wordy set-up to tell you about one person. You already know her to some degree from the blogs she writes right here on this site, but my guess is that you don’t really know her. Let me fill in some details. Her name is Candace Cable and she is a Paralympian par excellence. Sam Maddox, Reeve Knowledge Manager Emeritus, calls her an “iconic athlete.” And that’s just the beginning.

Candace was injured at 21 and having a hard time adjusting to her new reality. At Long Beach State, she decided it might be fun to learn to swim. She wasn’t any kind of athlete at this point or even sought to be one. Paralympians are not born; they are made. The swim coach, Jon Urbanchek, now a legendary Olympics trainer, got her into the water and swimming alongside non-disabled swim team members. Then he talked her into competing with the simple question, “Why not?” If the non-disabled swimmers swam a 100 meters, she would compete by swimming 50 meters. In time, she turned to something she was really good at, wheelchair racing. The thing is, she really didn’t do any of this to be a champion. She did it to meet people and hang out. She did it for social support.

After that, she was on a path and a few decades later, her athletic accomplishments are nothing short of breathtaking. I don’t have the space to do them justice, but here are a few headlines. She’s won 84 marathons including six Boston Marathons. She owns 12 Paralympic medals, 8 Gold. One year, 1992, she won medals in both the Winter Games (alpine skiing) and Summer Games (wheelchair racing). If you read the whole list, it’s full of “First American Woman” to win this and “Only Person” to win that. She even hand-cycled 4000 miles across America one year as an inspiration to young people with paralysis. Okay, enough. You get the picture. She’s got energy, courage, determination, the whole package.

Beyond filling up her den with shiny plaques and medals, she’s parlayed all of this into a life of lectures and disability training courses and webcasts and God knows what else. Right now she is on the Executive Board of the official group trying to bring the Olympic/Paralympic Games to Los Angeles in 2024. After she gets back from the Rio games, she plans to train all of her board colleagues, a group of serious movers and shakers, in a disability training course to give them a glimpse of what it’s like to live and prosper with an SCI. In a word, she is a ridiculous achiever. And a very cool person to hang out with.

When Sir Ludwig came up with this idea of sports as a road to physical accomplishment and enhanced self-respect for people with SCI, little did he know that he would one day open the way for a woman athlete/activist/ human being the likes of Candace Cable. My guess is that the good doctor would be proud as punch.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

Purchase Allen's book:

The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life