I had the pleasure of being a guest of the Canadian Paralympic Committee during the first four days of the London 2012 Paralympic Games for what would become a transformative moment in my life.
The Paralympics is a global sporting event every two years that immediately follows the Olympics. It features some of the world's best athletes who happen to have disabilities. Some of them are blind. Some are missing limbs. Some are in wheelchairs. Some do have developmental disabilities. And some appear just the same as their able-bodied counterparts.
I'll admit it: I went with preconceived notions about what I was going to see. I imagined a souped-up high school track and field meet. Everyone gets a ribbon. People politely applaud even when an athlete's performance isn't what they're used to seeing at the Olympics.
The reality couldn't be further from the truth.
Just like the Olympics, these athletes aim to go faster, higher, and stronger in everything they do. Their talent, passion, and level of athletic performance are like nothing I've ever seen -- simply put, they are remarkable.
I left the Games with a few moments that I'll remember forever. My first came from an article that appeared in the Independent. It was an interview with Sir Philip Craven, the CEO of the International Paralympic Committee, on the use of the word "disability" in reference to sport and the Paralympics. The piece that was most stunning was the comment that the London 2012 games had pre-sold over two million tickets, and would feature 4,200+ athletes from 164 different countries.
Next was the impact of the Opening Ceremony. Held in the London Olympic Stadium, they were just as outstanding as their more established cousin held two weeks prior. While there wasn't a tribute to Harry Potter, there was a wonderfully theatrical show about overcoming adversity narrated by none other than Dr. Stephen Hawking and starring a somewhat wizard-esque looking Sir Ian McKellen.
From there on, I realized I was experiencing something unlike anything I'd ever known. The first sporting event I attended was at the Aquatics Centre. I watched as two of Canada's own -- Benoit Huot and Summer Mortimer -- brought home Canada's first two medals: a gold for Benoit in the 200m Men's Individual Medley and a silver for Summer in the 200m Women's Individual Medley -- an event she called her "warm up" so she could shake off the nerves for her real event -- the 50m Women's Freestyle -- for which she won gold the next day.
Friday I was off to wheelchair basketball at London's North Greenwich Centre (a.k.a. The O2) to watch Canada's men take on Team GB (as in Great Britain) surrounded by thousands of energized, and notoriously serious British sports fans. I had a seat, but who cares -- I spent most of the game on my feet cheering. I have watched many NBA games, but few compare to the excitement and passion I saw that night.
Day four included two events. Goalball is a sport played by the visually impaired. In fact, just in case the athletes do have any vision (only 10 per cent of people with visual impairment are completely blind), they wear blindfolds. The game is played three on three, and is somewhat similar to European football. The players toss a heavy rubber ball containing a bell down the court at the other team, who have to block the shot coming toward their net. The ball goes around 60 mph. And did I mention they're blindfolded? You have to see it to believe it.
Last but not least was athletics and the women's 200m T52 where Canada's Michelle Stilwell holds the world and Paralympic records. She was facing tough competition from an up-and-coming Belgian. Michelle dominated and sped fast in record time -- beating her own records.
So, what lessons did I learn?
My eyes have been opened to a sporting event like no other. The Paralympics is just as good a sporting event as the Olympics. Maybe better.It inspires people to do their best and show the world that people with disabilities are not to be pitied -- they are to be celebrated for the amazing things they can do.
And I still know the words to O Canada, having sung it about 38 times over the four days. And every time with pride!
Michael Bach, CCDP/AP is the national leader of diversity at KPMG in Canada, and a graduate of Cornell University with a Post Graduate Certificate in Diversity Management. You can follow him on twitter @diversity_dude or watch his Paralympics VLOG on YouTube.
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