By Dana McMahan
“Athletics is the great healer” — Artie Guerrero, kicking off the Adventure Team Challenge
An adaptive adventure race provides an even playing field for athletes of all abilities. Our contributor, a former powerlifter, finds that the Adventure Team Challenge provides not only healing for those with disabilities, but inspiration and a new understanding of strength for herself.
I was apprehensive about participating in an adaptive adventure race. Like many people, I fear saying the wrong thing to a person with a disability. By trying not to offend, I end up feeling awkward and probably leave the other person feeling even worse as I stumble through conversation. As I prepared to head out to Grand Junction, Colorado, for the World TEAM Sports Adventure Team Challenge, a multi-sport adventure race featuring teams of five including two members with disabilities (one in a wheelchair), I wondered what was the right way to talk to the athletes.
Then I met Duane, a 60-something Marine veteran who lost both legs in the Vietnam War. Standing tall on American-flag emblazoned prosthetics, he pointed to a guy at the bar where the group was having cocktail hour the night before the race (I like the way these guys operate!). “Is he disabled?” Duane asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I replied.
“He is,” Duane said. “See his glasses? He can’t drive until he puts his glasses on. I can’t ride my bike until I put my legs on. I’m not disabled, I’m inconvenienced.”
By the end of the three-day mountain biking, climbing, hiking and rafting race, instead of seeing people with disabilities when I looked around at people with prosthetic legs, in wheelchairs, and with visual and other impairments, I just saw athletes—incredibly strong, persistent, mentally tough athletes. I saw people with a greater love of life and passion for living full speed ahead than anyone I’ve ever met. And I saw human beings showing more heartfelt support and encouragement than I’ve seen at any sporting event–or pretty much anywhere. I saw people who inspire me.
Though I wasn’t competing this year, one of the teams generously took me in and let me join them in several challenges, so I experienced first-hand the extraordinary spirit that pervaded the race.
Gina, a 44 year-old survivor of both a devastating car accident caused by a drunk driver and of breast cancer took me under her wing, giving me tips on training for next year, while simultaneously rallying the team non-stop. An infectious grin never left her face and when I wasn’t hanging out with the team I could often hear her laugh ringing across the campground. “This isn’t a bucket list,” she said, “this is LIFE! This is living!”
Her enthusiasm was echoed among the other participants. Over and over I heard that the injuries and disabilities were a blessing in disguise–that they wouldn’t change anything–that it was even the best thing that could have happened to them. People were so open and forthcoming, that one afternoon on a float down the Colorado River after a race stage concluded, we played a variation of Two Truths and a Lie, where everyone gave three causes of their disability (one the truth) as the rest of us guessed which it was. A game about people’s disabilities! I wouldn’t have imagined doing that in a million years.
As I spent time among the Challenge participants and grew increasingly comfortable, I wondered why it is that so-called able-bodied people have the reactions we so often do to those with disabilities. Could it be that they are a reminder that this could happen to us, too, at any moment? We don’t want to believe it, but when a 21-year-old in the prime of his life can ski off a cliff, break his back, and wake up paralyzed from the sternum down, we have to face that yes, it can happen…in the blink of an eye. And who among us wants to look at that possibility head-on? People have a fear of the unknown, Duane told me, and it’s true. Maybe our fear is that we wouldn’t be strong enough to handle a catastrophic injury. But over and over I encountered people who have faced what would seem to be the worst, and found their way to acceptance, even gratitude. And for the people here, the path was paved with sports.
“We, humans, all want freedom,” the skier told me. Twenty-eight now, David resumed skiing less than a year after his paralyzing injury. He also kayaks, mountain bikes on a hand cycle, and competes in the paralympics. “Sports give me that freedom,” he said. Once he’s paddling a kayak or flying downhill on skis, he’s free.
Others at the Challenge shared that joining this event was their turning point in pulling themselves out of a dark period. Meeting others who are proving what they can do showed them what they were still capable of. And they continue to draw inspiration from teammates and fellow competitors. Duane faced a difficult climbing ascent to a rappelling point, and, after several attempts, he was exhausted and cranky. He was done. Then, a female teammate made the climb. The Marine told me he’d never let his men do something he wouldn’t do himself, so as team captain, “after that young girl did it, I had to,” he said.
Although it was a timed race with a declared winning team, and people were plenty competitive, the cheering for one another was utterly genuine. I’ve only ever competed in an individual pursuit, where it’s me versus others. The purity of these athletes’ dedication to their teammates and their sincere joy in everyone’s’ accomplishments was more than inspiring. Racing down a trail after the last stage to head toward the finish line, my adoptive team encountered another team. Every person slowed enough to hand slap or high five every single person on the other team, shouting encouragement to keep at it. The day was hot, the biking and climbing were rough, the finish line was practically in sight, but the unbridled enthusiasm for one another’s success ran as high as it did at the start of the race.
I didn’t know what to expect going out to Colorado. I figured I’d be inspired by what athletes with disabilities could do. But in the end, it wasn’t the physical accomplishments that made the biggest impact on me–though they were monumentally impressive (I tried riding a hand cycle, and fit as I’d like to think I am, I wouldn’t have lasted one morning on it). It was their exuberant love for life that shut down the petty train of complaints I’ve had about my assorted injuries. It was their grace when confronted with unimaginable challenges that punched me in the guts. It was their inner strength that humbled me.
As a writer, I’m supposed to find the words to convey any emotion. I should be able to describe to someone who wasn’t there exactly what I experienced. But sometimes I’m just not up to the job. Sometimes, something is just too big, too meaningful, too transformative. Sometimes, I’m speechless.
Making notes on the way home from the race, tears tracking my cheeks as I tried to swallow the huge lump in my throat, I tried to describe a scene from a rough, hilly trail that afternoon at the end of a long, hard day when everyone was beyond exhausted.
Watching two athletes struggle to carry their paraplegic teammate, who’s so strong and capable in so many way, but can freely rely on and give control to his teammates–I don’t have the words yet.
Next year I want to be more than an observer. I want to be on a team with the most awesome athletes I’ve ever met.
Dana is a freelance fitness, travel, and food writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.