The media fawned over Olympic stars Michael Phelps and Simone Biles this year at the Summer Games, and rightly so. These athletes deserve recognition for their exceptional feats.
But athletes in the Olympics often receive generous stipends and endorsements that allow them to dedicate their lives to sporting.
“[Obstacles] are ‘magnificent gifts,'” said one paralympic athlete.
Paralympic athletes, on the other hand, become world-class athletes without all the bells, whistles and financial support. They often work full-time jobs in addition to training intensively.
The media may not have paid them much attention, but they still deserve the spotlight. Here are five remarkable Paralympic stars.
Amy Purdy, Snowboarding
Growing up, Amy Purdy of Las Vegas, Nevada, had big dreams of adventure, traveling, and living in a climate where she could snowboard. But those dreams took a turn shortly after high school, when she developed flu-like symptoms. She went into septic shock and was rushed to the hospital, where she immediately went on life support. Doctors diagnosed her with bacterial meningitis. She had less than a two percent chance of surviving.
Survive she did, but at great cost. In the next two months, she lost her spleen, kidneys, part of her hearing — and both her legs below the knee. She spent the next few months in bed, her new prosthetic legs by her side.
Her recovery was long and difficult, emotionally and physically. But when she started looking for the positive aspects of her situation, she realized she still had a lot to be grateful for. Now she jokes she can be as tall as she wants, her feet never get cold when she snowboards — and she can fit into all the shoes on the sales rack.
Purdy knew she was meant to snowboard again, so she worked with her doctor to invent feet that could bend and turn at the knees and ankles. Then she hit the slopes once more.
Now, years later, Amy Purdy is one of the world’s most impressive and recognizable athletes. In February 2011, she won two consecutive World Cup gold medals and became “the highest ranked adaptive female snowboarder in the world.” She also took bronze in the snowboard cross event in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi. Most recently in Rio, she stunned audiences during opening ceremonies when she danced in a 3D-printed dress with unsurpassed grace in a celebration of technology and athleticism.
Purdy fulfilled her dream of traveling the world. She challenges others to look at their obstacles as blessings. They are “magnificent gifts,” she says, “that can be used to ignite our imaginations and help us go further than we ever knew we could go.”
Cortney Jordan, Swimming
Jordan proved herself one of the top swimmers in the world this week — for the third time. She began swimming when she was seven years old, working through her left-side paralysis that was a result of cerebral palsy.
She works three part-time jobs while going to school for her master’s degree. She often rises at 4:30 a.m. to fit in everything.
Now she’s a 25-year-old world-class athlete and three-time Paralympian.
At her home in Baltimore, she works three part-time jobs while going to school for her master’s degree in elementary education. She often rises at 4:30 a.m. to fit in everything, including two hours of hard training. “With my disability, everything I do is amplified,” Jordan said in a media release. “For example, an able-bodied person walking one mile is like me walking 8 to 10 miles. That’s the amount of effort I have to put in.”
Her current medal count is 11. She earned three of those medals this week, in the S7 50 butterfly, the SM7 200 individual medley, and the S7 400 freestyle. She finished off a triumphant week with the 100 freestyle.
John Kusku, Goalball
“The first time I really played goalball was in 1998 at [a] sports education camp,” John Kusku told LifeZette. “and in the semifinal game, I got hit in face with the ball so hard my nose started bleeding immediately. I just fell in love with it at that moment.”
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John Kusku is a high school math teacher turned world-class Paralympic athlete. He was born with a degenerative retinal disease and is legally blind, with only one degree of vision in each eye. Goalball originated as a team sport that helped rehabilitate visually impaired veterans. Players wear eyeshades and alternate throwing a ball with embedded bells at an opposing team.
Kusku keeps an intense schedule and a calibrated diet to maintain his strength. In addition to his profession and caring for his one-year-old son, he gets at least an hour of intense physical training every day.
All that work has paid off. In the semifinals against Brazil this week, Kusku blocked a penalty shot, securing the final winning score of the game at 10-1. The U.S. team has lost six times against Brazil since 2011 but turned that trend around. “It’s an honor and an extremely emotional win,” Kusku said in a media release. On Friday, the men’s team earned a silver and qualified for the 2018 IBSA (International Blind Sports Federation) World Championships in Malmo, Sweden, which will be their first opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Tyler Merren, Goalball
If teammate John Kusku is new to the Paralympics, then his mentor Tyler Merren is the veteran. The Rio Games are his third Paralympics, and he already has a bronze medal from the Athens games.
“The process of becoming a world-class goalball player starts with becoming a world-class athlete,” Merren told LifeZette. “You cannot be a great goalball player if you’re not a great athlete. I’ve spent the last 16 or 17 years really trying to get myself into the best shape possible.”
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As a father of four and a fitness manager at a major gym franchise in Coral Springs, Florida, Merren keeps to a rigorous schedule. “My typical day of training involves compressing in the best workout or skill training session I can between appointments at work and trying to find time for family.”
Merren had to adjust after he was diagnosed with a visual impairment as a teen. But when he discovered goalball, he knew he had found a sport that he could play no matter how much eyesight he lost. He has always been an exceptional athlete, and after his first game of goalball, he was invited to play at the national championships in South Florida.
Now he’s a star on the U.S. goalball team and scored crucial goals in the semifinal game against Brazil on Thursday. Tyler Merren goes home with his second Paralympic medal.
Renée Foessel, Discus
Foessel has distinguished herself as one of the top North American athletes in track and field. Last year at the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) World Championships, she snatched up gold, silver, and bronze in the discus, shot put, and javelin throw. She considers this moment the greatest of her life.
Born with cerebral palsy, Foessel had a tough time with sports until she got started with the programs at ErinoakKids, a children’s treatment center in Ontario for children with disabilities. “Having cerebral palsy hemiplegia growing up has shown me that it is important to use sport to become more active. And being active has made a huge difference in my disability.”
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Now she’s getting ready to perform on the Paralympic stage on Saturday in the discus finals. Foessel is a formidable contender in her event. “I look forward to competing and making the world proud in my Paralympic debut,” she told LifeZette.