The Paralympics movement celebrated another successful year in Rio de Janeiro as throngs of athletes vied for medals in fierce and exciting competition. With the Summer Games now in the books, the results are in; and what a great source of inspiration they are for those with Cerebral Palsy. Though athletes with various disabilities are eligible to compete in the Paralympic Games, a common one among Paralympians is Cerebral Palsy. But it isn’t just athletes in the Rio Paralympics who are making a difference and working toward changing public perception for the better concerning Cerebral Palsy.
Actor R.J. Mitte reported for the Games for British television Channel 4, and had a blast doing it. Mitte, best known for playing Walter White Jr. in the hit television series Breaking Bad, has Cerebral Palsy and expressed his excitement for the Games in Rio saying “I love everything, it is so much fun.” Mitte also said that the Games are “crucial to change perceptions” about disabilities, and it’s easy to see why since the Games showcase ability rather than disability and prove that overcoming obstacles, even of the toughest kind, is not just possible, but in progress. Public opinion can sometimes sideline those with disabilities like Cerebral Palsy when it comes to sport and competition, but the Rio Paralympic Games are a strong reminder that this kind of perception is unfair, and that the mere presence of a disability does not automatically prevent a determined person from participating in high-caliber competition.
Consider the following small sample of extraordinary Paralympians who have Cerebral Palsy:
Laurens Devon from Belgium made history as the youngest table tennis champion ever in the Paralympic Games at only 16 years and 28 days old. The youngster clenched Paralympic Gold in a 3-0 sweep against his competitor Gerben Last of the Netherlands. The rapid pace and displays of deft agility characteristic of table tennis do not dissuade Devon from the sport – Devon’s will and love for the game guide his performances and achievements, not his Cerebal Palsy. Out of a total of 11 Class events, Devon competed in the Class 9 event, where a lower Class number indicates a more severe disability. Devon’s world-class skill and hand-eye expertise make him a ruthless competitor, but at an innocent 16 years old, his competitors often have to learn that the hard way…
On the track, Australia’s James Turner won Paralympic Gold and set a new World Record in the T36 Class 800 meter run. Completing the race in a blazing 2:02.29, the next competitor to cross the line, Great Britain’s Paul Blake, did so a whopping 7 seconds later. Turner’s herculean efforts in the race resulted in his collapsing after crossing the finish line and suffering from a minor Cerebral Palsy related seizure. Perhaps just as amazing as Turner’s dramatic performance, Turner is chiefly a soccer player turned track star after Athletics Australia noticed his potential. Turner’s soccer team, the Para-Roos, failed to qualify for Rio—so he gave the 800 meter field event a try, having begun training only since November of 2015. The result? A new World Record.
Great Britain’s two-time Paralympic champion Sophie Christiansen, who has quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, won Gold at London 2012 as well as Rio 2016 in Para-Equestrian Dressage. “Para-Equestrian” means someone with a disability performing or riding on a horse, and “Dressage” is the art of riding a horse in a particular way so as to meet expectations of a given sport event. For example, one of the expectations for competition in Christiansen’s case is that horses are not supposed to break out of a walk. Christiansen competes in the most disabled category for Para Dressage, Grade 1a.
She began equestrian therapy for her Cerebral Palsy as young as 6 years old and, having fallen in love with the freedom horses gave her, continued to ride. At age 13, she began to compete in dressage competitions, climbing her way up the ladder—all the way to Paralympic Gold. Now at 28 years old, Christiansen has been branded a star, winning 13 of her last 14 major competitions since 2012. Her prowess, however, is not limited to sport—Christiansen holds a first-class mathematics degree and codes for Goldman Sachs. And as a further testament to her unique talents and tastes, Christiansen enjoys rattling up tradition in dressage by choosing edgier song tracks to play during her routine, like those from Pink Floyd, for example.
Whether it’s R.J Mitte reporting on the Paralympics, Laurens Devon zipping one past his opponent, James Turner blazing around the track, or Sophie Christiansen riding her way to victory, those with Cerebral Palsy in the Paralympics have succeeded in so many ways and have given hope, inspiration, and proof to others that dreams can come true. Most importantly, they have all helped to spread a positive, ability-focused message about Cerebral Palsy that is sure touch the lives of aspiring athletes everywhere.