In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m taking a bit of a break from straight news stories to talk about some of my favorite disability sport athletes, and just some interesting women participating in disability sport. Most of these are people who are drawn from earlier news coverage. As a rule, ParaSport News makes a point to try to highlight athletes as athletes, not as athletes with compelling stories of overcoming tremendous adversity to become sportspeople because we believe that highlighting the disability and a person’s back story at the expense of sport is a not always a good thing when it comes to trying to bring acceptance to disability sport. Elite athletes are elite athletes. In this particular case, an exception is being made because some of their stories are interesting and fascinating, and they have accomplished a lot.
These are just a few of the stories about some of the truly awesome and inspirational women involved in disability sport. There is not time enough to include them all.
- Teresa Perales
- Irene Villa
- Trischa Zorn
- Michelle Rzepecki
- Luz Marina Cortez
- Nepal women’s blind cricket team
- Nurul Taha
- Oksana Masters
Since I had the opportunity to interview Teresa Perales in 2013 in Zaragoza, she has been one of my favorite disability sport athletes. At nineteen, she developed neuropathy and lost the use of her legs gradually in a three month period. Within a year of that, she had discovered swimming, was in the pool regularly, and joined a swimming club. By the age of 21, she was winning national swimming championships. One year later in 1998, she was medaling at the world championships. She won her first Paralympic medal at the 2000 Games, and would go on to become Spain’s decorated Olympic or Paralympic swimmer of all time. She is the Spanish Michael Phelps, except she swims with limited use of her legs, while balancing being a mother, and dealing with a Spanish sport bureaucracy that treats neither women nor people with disabilities equal to their male able-bodied counter parts. She is involved with sport on the highest level as a member of the IPC Athletes Council. She also is a disability activist, published author, multilingual and a politician. When people talk about the power of sport to empower women, Teresa Perales embodies all that and more.
Having covered Spanish disability sport a fair amount, Spain sometimes feels like a weird place where both former terrorists and victims of terrorism can and do compete at the highest level. Irene Villa falls into the category of victim of terrorism, except having interviewed her, she feels like no one’s victim.
In Spain, Villa is not primarily known as a disability sport athlete. She is known for her activism and her position regarding the rights of people surrounding issues of life and death. In some ways, this had made her a polarizing figure. For me though, she is the definition of what a lot of disability sport athletes deal with on the national level. They try a couple of sports, and they get hooked on them. They actively compete. They may switch to other sports, and they make contacts with people who can help them improve as people and help them with their goals in life. They make opportunities happen. That’s what Irene Villa has done.
As a 12 year old, Villa lost her legs in a terrorist attack by ETA when a car bomb targeting her mother, a director of a prison, went off when she was being taken to school. There was national outrage in regard to her situation because of the child victims. Villa would then go on to become a national wheelchair fencing competitor, and having at least one second place finish at the nationals. She made the switch to para-alpine skiing in 2007 with the goal of qualifying for the 2010 Winter Paralympics, which she missed out on. She continued with the sport, participating in training camps and being a member of the first women’s only para-ski clubs in the world.
Trischa Zorn is probably one of the few people in the world who can make Michael Phelps’ records in the pool pale in comparison. She has an eye popping 55 Paralympic medals, a feat accomplished between 1980 and 2004. She has so many that the IPC actually has to take her at her word based on her showing them all the medals she won because early records for who won are so poor. Her gigantic medal haul is something that it is impossible to see anyone else ever coming close to topping.
The end her competitive career came at a time when the Paralympic movement was changing. The Sydney Games marked the real starting point for serious professionalization in disability sport, a turning point where the Games were clearly no longer about the joy of competing as an individual and for country but competing to win and bring glory for yourself and your country. Classification started to become more important and medals became fewer. Despite all these changes going on in her sport, the vision impaired Zorn still managed to win despite competing against the best and most gifted the world could throw at her.
Outside of Paralympic sport, Zorn is an unassuming person who can downplay her greatness in the pool. She does work with veterans, and maintains a relatively low profile except when asked by Team USA and the IPC to be a face inside the movement. She is probably the most successful female athlete in the world that you have never heard of.
Michelle Rzepecki is probably not the world’s most famous female goalball player. That’s probably Jen Armbruster. She is also not Australia’s most famous or decorated female Paralympian, an honor which should probably easily go to athletics great Louise Sauvage. Naming Australia’s greatest vision impaired sport person would be hard because so few great names come to mind. Maybe Jessica Gallagher?
What Australian Rzepecki is is a visually impaired sportsperson who was a key leader on a team that helped put her sport on Australia’s disability sport landscape. She has had her vision problems since birth. She is a goalball player in a country where blind sport does not have the recognition and support that other forms of disability sport has. In any case, the 28-year-old took up goalball in 2002, and made her first appearance at the national championships in 2004. She was part of a team that surprised the Australian Paralympic Committee by qualifying for the 2012 Summer Paralympics when they had not been expecting them to be ready to qualify until 2016. She and the rest of her team worked hard, and had the belief that they could make it to London and medal. While they missed out on that, they still performed admirably on the world’s biggest stage for their sport.
Rzepecki hasn’t used her disability as an excuse not to do things that able-bodied people are often too scared to do. She volunteered in Bolivia where she introduced vision impaired youngsters to the sport of goalball. She also worked as a guide on the Sydney Skywalk Tour. Lots of people cannot get off their butts to do sports, or to even go on holiday to another country that might be perceived as unsafe. Rzepecki went to one of those placed and volunteered. This sort of thing embodies the best of what elite female athletes with disabilities do: They take risks, they seize opportunities, they look their own challenges in the face, and then they give back to others to help them get the same assistance others gave them.
Luz Marina Cortez is a new wheelchair basketball player from Colombia. She has not been playing very long, only taking up the game recently after being discovered while trying her second disability sport, powerlifting. She had been at that sport for only two months. Before that, Cortez had tried swimming but discovered she was not very good or interested in it. She has only participated at one major competition, the South American women’s qualifying tournament for this year’s Para Panamerican Games in Toronto, Canada.
What makes Cortez so special? For me, it is the fact that she is playing at all. Here is someone who when they were 18 years old who got caught between gang violence in Medellín and ended up partially paralyzed and needing to use a wheelchair. She used the event to try to make goals for her life, including becoming an elite athlete.
Being an elite female athlete with a disability in Colombia is hard. While the country sent a reasonably large delegation to London, it was overwhelming male. There were 30 men and only 7 women. This has historically been the case for the country. Women’s disability sport is in its infancy there, and this is particularly the case for women’s wheelchair basketball. The country’s national team members are all almost entirely new to the sport. Unlike their male counterparts, there is no women’s domestic league in the country for them to compete in in order to maintain their competitive edge against on a domestic level when they are not playing internationally. Their future options to play internationally also appear a bit limited, especially since it costs so much more to send a team to compete with only one potential medal on offer. For Cortez and the rest of the players on their team, these are big challenges they have to overcome but local leadership on and off the court look like this is something they are dedicated to addressing. Hopefully, Cortez will have the ability to continue to play the sport long into the future.
When I think of women on the cutting edge of advancing women’s sport, I rarely think Nepal. And yet, there we have it. Nepal was the first country in the world to have a women’s national blind cricket team. They were also played in the first women’s international when they took on a national team from Great Britain last November, and then they won this series 3 – 0. Following their win, they were awarded 10,000 RS (€92, US$100) each by the government and were honored at a ceremony organized by Nepal’s Ministry of Youth and Sports.
The team included Bhagawati Bhattarai , Gita Paudel, Om Maya Pun, Sita Dhakal, Meena Chhetri, Mankeshi Chaudhary, Sunita Ghimire, Bhagawati Amagain, Sarita Ghimire, Rita Thapa, Nima BC, Muna Aryal, Maya Gautam and Asha Regmi.
Blind cricket is not a Paralympic sport, and is unlikely to become one until it can demonstrate the sport is being actively played in over 35 countries on the elite level. It has traditionally been dominated by men in cricket playing strongholds of the world like Australia, Pakistan, Great Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the West Indies.
Into this stepped Nepal and local women who had started playing the sport on their own to develop a team and local competition basically from the ground up. Thanks to people in the United Kingdom who heard about what they were able to do, they were then able to assist in organizing that first international. Since then, their activities have helped inspire a new generation of female blind cricketers. People have since been working on getting more women involved with cricket in gender inclusive and women specific events in South Africa and New Zealand.
This team is year another example of sport giving women an opportunity to gain leadership skills and take on the world. Nepal’s women epitomize this.
There are few highly visible women with severe disabilities in the Paralympic movement. Overall, these athletes have fewer opportunities to begin with and are proportionally fewer as a part of the population as a whole, and inside the Paralympic movement when compared to men. One of my favorites of these female athletes is Singapore boccia player Nurul Binte Mohammad Taha.
She is a professional boccia player competed at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in the individual BC3 event, where she finished seventh overall. Only two women finished higher than her in the mixed gender competition, Belgium’s Kirsten De Laender who finished sixth and South Korea’s Ye Jin Choi who took home gold. In 2010, in the lead up to the World Championships, she spent four to eleven hours a day in training, at an event that was her first outside the Asia-Oceania region. She worked to customize her ramp to improve her shot performance, and has been continuing to work with Nanyang Polytechnic in 2015 to do more improvements.
Taha appears very engaged behind the scenes with her sport in Singapore. She will be at a Boccia Introductory Workshop at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore Multi-purpose Hall at the end of the month. She was the Master of Ceremonies for the 2015 Asean Para Games ceremony where the sporting program was announced, and has been active in trying to encourage people to volunteer for the Games. She has spoken before the National Youth Council in Singapore. She spoke at the National Secondary School Student Leaders Conference 2015. As an advocate for her sport, she has been quoted as saying, “We participate in sports for the same motivations as able-bodied athletes to bring glory to the country. We compete because it’s fun and exciting, and because it’s a way to entertain spectators.”
Born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, Taha serves as an example of wanting something and making it happen. Any limits set by her disability are ones she has worked hard to deal with to become a professional athlete, a leader in disability sport in her country, and become one of her country’s most visible disability sport athletes.
Oksana Masters has one of those stories where it can just blow your mind at the trials she has faced, and what she has overcome not just with having a disability but in all the other personal issues. She stands on her two prosthetic legs among the elite of the elite, one of the top female rowers in the world and one of the top Nordic skiers.
Born in the Ukraine, Masters had a number of radiation related birth defects because of Chernobyl power plant accident. These defects included webbed fingers with no thumbs, six toes on each foot, missing weight-bearing shinbones in her calves, and tibial hemimelia. Because of these issues, her parents abandoned her and she lived in a Ukranian orphanage for the first seven years of her life. At one of the places where she lived in her early childhood, children sometimes only got porridge and stale bread to eat. During the winter, the floors might be covered with ice. Asking too many questions could get you beaten. Living in these places, she became a child victim of rape. She also witnessed one of the children she was living with killed for trying to get extra food.
At 7 years old, she was adopted by a single American woman and moved to the United States where her adoptive mother helped her get surgery to deal with her physical limitations and encouraged her to take up sport. Her early adventures included learning how to ride a horse and how to ice skate. In high school, she was introduced to rowing by a physical education teacher. She took to the sport, in part because it gave her a sense of control of her life that she did not have growing up in the Ukraine.
Masters has benefited in life from a lot of people in her life seeing something special in her, and assisting her in realizing her dreams. She stands among a special group of Paralympians in that she has medaled at both the Winter and Summer Paralympics after winning silver at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi in the 12km sitting cross country event, and bronze in the trunks and arms mixed double sculls at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. She is joined in that elite group by Alana Nichols, the first American woman to win gold in both the Winter and Summer Paralympics. She is also joined by Tatyana McFadden, who was born in Russia, abandoned by her parents, adopted and moved to the United States. Masters is amongst the elite of the elite in two different sports.