The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games, taking place from the 8th to the 18th of September, were an absolutely amazing event from a spectator’s view. It had everything fans had hoped for: milestones and records broken, tons of breathtaking finishes, and surprises at every turn.
The surprises of this past summer’s event started right from the opening ceremony. As nice as the procession of countries was, nothing could top a front flip by WCMX superstar Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham to kick things off! (just click play in the video below)
This absolutely pumped me up for what was to come in the next eleven days of competition, and I was not disappointed. This was the first time I had fully gotten into watching and covering the Paralympics (for a few reasons that I will touch upon later). I was excited to check out Track and Field and Wheelchair Rugby specifically, but eager to take in a wide variety of new sports!
Track and Field held events throughout the Paralympics with medals awarded nearly every day. This is partly due to the fact that there are so many categories in Paralympic Track in order to account for different levels of mobility and adaptive equipment used. Track and Field brought the United States their first Paralympic medal of 2016 thanks to Lex Gillette, a visually impaired athlete who finished with a silver medal in long jump.
The Track and Field competitions continued to wow spectators. USA’s Tatyana McFadden nearly swept the seven events she entered in Women’s Wheelchair Racing, only missing out on gold with silver medals in the Marathon and 100 meter race. Then, the Paralympics made EVERYONE stop and think. The four top finishers in the Paralympic final of the T13 visually impaired 1500 meter race ran faster times than their Olympic counterparts just a month earlier. Of course there are many factors that affect the pacing and results of a race like this, but it is an amazing feat nonetheless. It is a prime example that all of these athletes are at the peak of athletic performance. No amount of adaptive equipment or sport adjustments can take away from what these athletes do.
Another sport that surprised me this year was Judo. Coming from essentially no martial arts background, many of the types of fighting seem to blend together (I’m sorry martial arts people!). Anyways, I have now found out that Judo is involved with takedowns, throws, and pins rather than punching and kicking like I assumed all martial arts to be. I found Judo worked extremely well adapted to visually impaired athletes in the Paralympics. The only major change needed was a rule requiring competitors to keep their hands on their opponent. This allows them to know where the opponent is generally, but the rest is up to their incredible intuition to take them down.
Out of the 22 Summer sports, I was most excited to see Wheelchair Rugby. It is one of the most intense sports out there (rivaled only by the new addition of Rugby 7s in the 2016 Olympics). Wheelchair Rugby is a hard hitting, fast-paced game that is essentially a mix of Rugby and Team Handball. Teams of four score a point by bringing the ball over the opposing teams goal line over four 8-minute quarters. Wheelchair Rugby is known by some as “Murderball” because of the sheer force of the collisions between the wheelchairs (and thanks to a documentary bearing the same name).
Eight teams entered the Paralympic tournament representing USA, Japan, South Africa, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Brazil, France, and Sweden. After a group stage and semifinals where the US team snuck past Canada and Australia defeated Japan, the stage was set for an intense final!
Since each goal in Wheelchair Rugby is only worth one point, it takes quite a swing in momentum to pull away. And that was something neither team could do. Goals were traded throughout all four quarters and eventually two overtime periods led by Chuck Aoki for Team USA and Riley Batt and Chris Bond for Australia. In the end, Australia clinched the gold medal with a tie-breaking goal with just seconds remaining in the second overtime period.
So…why was this the first Paralympic Games I watched??
For one thing, I really wish it wasn’t, but I’m happy with my experiences this past summer. But in the past, with much of the summer consumed watching the Olympics, sticking around for the Paralympics for someone outside of the adaptive sports world is difficult. Paralympic sports have historically had pretty limited exposure outside of the adaptive sports world and we had not been fully introduced into adaptive sports until a few years ago.
The Paralympics always seemed to be mentioned a few times during the Olympic broadcasts but they were almost completely ignored for live broadcasts here in the US. Luckily, this changed when NBC announced they would broadcast 70 hours of Rio Paralympic Games coverage with many livestreams online as well. But no matter how we got into this, I am now fully engrossed in adaptive sports of all kinds, and the Paralympics are the perfect example of adaptive sports on the highest level!
Cover Photo: Australia’s Chris Bond pushes down the court as USA’s Josh Brewer reaches for the ball during an epic gold medal match to finish the Rio 2016 wheelchair rugby tournament. © • CWSA/Kevin Bogetti-Smith