As someone for whom a paper cut can be a real nuisance firing a camera, and who's covered the most spectacular athletes of the last quarter century, this trip to Rio for the 2016 Paralympics brings me face to face with sports outside that cocoon. As a photographer covering sports from the sandlot to the Super Bowl, I've often covered athletes returning from "devastating" knee injuries or "severe" muscle pulls.
This event chips the veneer off those injuries and exposes the difficulty of overcoming genuine adversity.
Media were given access to the Paralympic Village Tuesday afternoon, and my first assignment for the Olympic Information Service was to work with fellow photographer Tom Lovelock and start a story about the Village experience. This was not about the physical complex, the fortress/playground the athletes would spend the next 13 days in….it was about the athletes and their everyday challenges in navigating a world that often fails to appreciate their daily achievements, and views their athletic skills through the lens of Olympic parameters.
At first glance the village was simply a series of high-rise buildings ringed by miles of fencing. Flags and banners of countries hung from the balconies like so many oversized beach towels. The park that ran through the center of the village had palm trees, paths and fountained pools; like any Caribbean resort.
Wheelchairs were the first indication that life was different. Every shape, size and motorized version, laden with backpacks, water bottles and credentials, wove their way between pedestrians. For those on their feet, I couldn't help but try and discern each person’s handicap; missing limbs, a prosthesis or a limp, the blind navigating a winding path with a long cane or being led around by a coach.
It was uncomfortable at first. I felt awkward searching for these outward signs of disability. But as I photographed the athletes and their credentials for ID, I quickly realized the athletes knew all to well why I was there, and didn’t care. Whether they spoke english or we played charades to communicate, they were excited to be photographed like all but the most recognizable Olympic athletes.
Fortunately, one of my earliest photos was of two US athletes: shot putter Johnnie Williams rolled his chair along a path, and discus thrower Michael Wishnia walked alongside, a knee brace the only sign of a disability listed as “impaired muscle power.” (I don't know what that makes me, since I’m pretty sure Michael Wishnia could break me in two.)
Both wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with a large, white “USA.” I asked them where they were from, and when Johnnie answered “The US,” I was able to pause and shoot back an “Oh, really?” They both did a double take at me, and then Michael laughed, and said, “Oh yeah” as he looked down at his shirt. We chatted about their hometowns and when I mixed up their sports, Johnnie pointed out that HE was a shot putter and that discus was for Neanderthals.
That was it for me….those two guys made me realize I was just among more jocks….and if I’ve learned one thing about athletes, it’s that you better be comfortable with teasing on both ends of the conversation…and you better have thick skin.
The next few hours were spent finding athletes that, and I can’t find a nicer way to say this, “looked like Paralympians,” photographing them, and chatting with them about their sport. Sometimes the conversation got too personal and I forgot about my job....
My parents are both Belgian so I’m always on the lookout for the Black, Yellow and Red. The first Belgian I ran into was swimmer Sven Decaesstecker, whose missing leg is classified clinically as a “limb deficiency” that was “acquired” (which means that at some point Sven lost that leg). He lives in Ostende, a North Sea beach resort that I visited frequently on vacations with my family, and I chatted with him long enough that I never even thought to take his picture. I ran into him later in the day and he mentioned he’d be the flag bearer at Opening Ceremonies, so I was waiting for him...and he was clearly looking outfor me!
So, I actually did work that day, and below are some of the athletes I shot while at the Village….
Chinese shot-putter Wei Wang shoots pool in the Entertainment complex of the Paralympic Village.
British Boccia players Patrick Wilson and Jamie McCowan play Wii Tennis at the Entertainment Complex.
Jack Hunter Spivey, a British table tennis player with a wicked Mohawk, and some serious tats, downs lunch at the village dining hall.
Members of team Spain roll up a ramp to the Village housing. Another thing I learned is that asking a wheelchair bound person if they need a push up a ramp (or the arched bridge at the center of the village) is cool…they either say yes or no….I saw several people accept the help.
This Austrian athlete flew by me several times during my time in the village.
Blind Aussie swimmer Jeremy McClure uses a long cane to navigate his way long the village path.
Colombian cyclist Nestor Ayala watches US Open tennis while riding the stationary bike