Amazing last-place finish at Olympics


Athletes at the London 2012 Summer Games have had us spectators in awe the past two weeks. We get used to that every four years. But South Africa's Oscar Pistorius inspired a new kind of amazement. A double below-the-knee amputee competing against the world's fastest in the men's 400-meter semifinals race can drop jaws a little lower, raise eyebrows a little higher.

While the world sat in wonder over the ability of this so-called disabled man, I couldn't help but feel a little resentment over it. Pistorius deserves the spotlight, no doubt, but so do others like him.

In a little more than two weeks, when Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are yesterday's news, a fleet of equally gifted, further-challenged athletes will roll into London. They will show much greater grit yet enjoy far fewer camera flashes. At least that's how it went when I covered the Paralympic Games 10 years ago.

I lived minutes from Salt Lake City when it hosted the Winter Games in 2002. Fresh out of college, I wanted a job writing about the Olympics but begrudgingly settled for a volunteer position covering the Paralympics. My press pass came after the city buses from all over the country, the media from all over the world and the parties all over town had disappeared.

Before the games, I had the task of profiling two athletes. The first, Bonnie St. John, won a silver medal in 1984 for skiracing. A lot of journalists probably remember their first post-college interview. This one stuck with me, not for its nostalgia, but for the sage advice that came from it.

St. John had striking good looks and the kind of smile dentists bow down to. She told me all about her upbringing in San Diego, the abuse she endured as a kid and what it was like growing up with one leg.

If you're hearing violins, you can scratch them.

Accolades have marked her life much more than affliction. St. John recognized early on she'd have to experience difficult scenarios to accomplish anything worth hard work, so she made a point of throwing herself into uncomfortable situations, starting with skiing.

She went on to earn a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and an appointment to the White House Economic Council under the Clinton administration. Oh yeah, and that silver medal.

I don't know how many people I've told since meeting St. John to embrace uncomfortable situations. Probably as many as I've told to get up when they fall, and get up fast.

She travels the country as a keynote speaker and author. The messages differ depending on her audience. When I met her she gave inspirational speeches related to her silver medal win, describing the turning point of the race when each skier in her event hit a dangerous spot and fell to the ground. The recoveries, not the falls, determined the race's outcome.

The gold medalist got up faster than her. The bronze medalist got up slower than her.

I caught up with St. John recently. We talked about her last two books, "Live Your Joy" and "How Great Women Lead." We also talked about Pistorius and that Paralympic ticket sales have increased with his fame.

"I felt strongly that he should have the opportunity to race in the Olympics," she says. "We've been the stepchild of the Olympic movement for so long. The politics are such that we often get looked at as second rate."

Which is why I didn't appreciate the Paralympics until covering them. The unpaid position ended up paying off handsomely. You never forget witnessing that kind of resilience.

It's the same reason so many people marveled over Pistorius, despite his last place semifinal finish. He made them gasp over the possibilities of the human body and maybe even contemplate their own potential.

I would encourage every last Pistorius fan to follow the Summer Paralympic Games through live video streaming on paralympic.org. Pistorius' semifinals moment lasted all of 46.54 seconds. The Paralympics lasts 12 days, Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.

The other athlete I profiled in 2002 was Rudy Garcia-Tolson. He carried the torch through Salt Lake City before the opening ceremonies.

Back then, the double above-the-knee amputee was just 13 and absolutely certain he'd swim competitively in the 2004 Paralympics. Just as planned, Garcia-Tolson earned a gold medal in the 200-meter individual medley in Athens. Four years later, in 2008, he repeated that win in Beijing and added a bronze for the 100-meter breaststroke.

I tried contacting him for this column, but he was kinda busy. Garcia-Tolson, now 23, is headed to London.

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

 

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