As an athlete and employee involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, I’ve had the unique and pleasant opportunity to witness adaptive athletes of all levels immerse themselves in sport, often spurring a journey of self-discovery for the young and newly injured, or for others—celebrate their success as an elite member in the top tier. Both populations resonate incredibly well when their story is shared. On one hand, you have the young and the broken resolve to overcome adversity and display the determination to do so. On the other, you have the elite, the Paralympians, and all the others who have displayed success in the very top percentile despite having to adapt to overcome physical limitations. With the two demographics representing the starting line and finish line being heavily marketed when it comes to advocacy for adaptive athletes, the unasked question remains: what about those in the middle?I am going to preface this next part by saying I am one of those athletes who fall into this middle group. I’m no longer considered a fresh injury as I approach the four year mark, but I don’t have the experience to claim elite status either. Whereas I have spent the countless hours in training sessions in my chosen sport of wheelchair rugby, I’m also not one to cheapen the dedication and work put in by those who have already made and collected their laurels on the National Team by making that comparison.
In short, I am average. I am not special. These traits are what I believe to be the most important to “middle” athletes; you either make the decision to ignore them at the risk of becoming complacent, or accept them and push yourself so that they no longer define you. If new adaptive athletes are defined by facing adversity, and the elite are defined by success, then the middle is without a doubt defined by purpose.
The difference between working out and training is purpose. Training has direction and is performed with the intent of improving the chance for success in a competitive scenario. Purpose is the catalyst that sets the ordinary on the path to extraordinary. Purpose is waking up at 5:30 every morning to train before work. Purpose is properly fueling and recovering the one and only body you’ll ever possess, adaptive or able-bodied. Purpose is my reminder that every mile pushed, every pound lifted, is making me a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, a little less average.
The middle stretch of an athlete’s career defined by purpose is polarizing. You make it, or you don’t. No one claps and cheers for you every step of the way anymore, and your adversaries are often more experienced, or simply better. Those who make it understand; there’s no time asking for things you don’t have, only the opportunity to fight as hard as you can with everything you’re given.
As an adaptive athlete, getting even the opportunity to step into the ring is critical. Sports Chairs start at $2,500, while prosthetic limbs effortlessly break the $15,000 mark. The majority of CAF beneficiaries earn less than $25,000 annually, which leaves these pursuits largely unaffordable. My rugby wheelchair cost $6,000. I have two of them. Even with a full-time job, paying for them out of pocket would be way above my budget, much less factoring in the costs of travel and competition for an entire season.
Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) is a non-profit that funds grants to people with physical challenges for adaptive sports equipment, running prosthetics, coaching and competition expenses. These range from a hand cycle for a woman who wants to ride a bike with her children to a custom-designed prosthetic hand for a rower who wants to make the Paralympics.
Fitness, health, and athleticism are not privileges; they are rights. Whether a physical challenge is congenital or the result of trauma, it shouldn’t serve as a barrier to pursue purpose. CAF distributed $3.5 million in grants to 1,709 adaptive athletes in 2015, eclipsing their previous year’s record of $3.1 million to 1,469 athletes. This support allows adaptive athletes to not only engage with their health and fitness, it opens the door for self-improvement so we can work hard to better ourselves. An attitude of self-improvement in the face of adversity often transcends the gym and leads to a renewed outlook on a productive life.
I don’t have any bitterness about my situation. The only difference between an able-bodied athlete and myself is I train sitting down. I also won’t pretend to love my situation either, but nothing in this lifetime will allow me to run again—to truly run like I used to. However, I firmly believe there is great courage in being able to look in the mirror and accept who you see looking back at you, then pushing that person to be the best they can be, every day, for the rest of their life.
For that very reason, I am going to wake up tomorrow, get in my rugby chair, and train. Hard. I’m going to go to the gym and lift weights before conditioning with intervals, sprints, and pushing a loaded sled. The next day I’ll push out six to seven miles at a sub-seven minute pace. I’m going to be in the gym again the following day. My team has won back to back Division II National Championships. We may be seeded as high as 3rd in Division I next year. I’ve promised to myself that I’ll be ready, no matter what. I’m desperately working to be a little less average.
Every single athlete, able or adaptive, eventually end up at the same crossroads and debate whether they want to make the jump from average to elite. Those who choose to take the leap enter a long, dark tunnel with the knowledge that purpose, dedication, and courage will carry them to the other side. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. So for those of you stuck in the middle, while the cameras are focused everyone else, put your head down and push.