Sometimes motivation and determination can help overcome physical limitations.
Daniel Cnossen, a pleasant man from Kansas, has come a long way since the day he lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Kandahar in 2009, to the day he left the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games with six medals in his hand. He used to be a Navy SEAL platoon commander, awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service. Now he trains biathlon and cross-country skiing.
The American representation in PyeongChang, numbering about 70 athletes, included, apart from Cnossen, 18 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the USA is not an exception. British officer Nick Beighton, who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, won a bronze medal in canoeing at the Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, he lost to another veteran, an Australian Curtis McGrath, who won gold. Another British Paralympic athlete, Jon-Allan Butterworth, has been a successful cyclist despite having lost his left arm during a missile attack in Iraq.
There are countless examples of such people. Veteran athletes are an integral part of a bigger group of courageous people who found strength to overcome their disability. Some of them, such as the table tennis player Natalia Partyka, a participant of the Paralympic Games in Beijing or London, the South-African swimmer Natalie duToit, or the Czech cyclist Jiři Ježek, compete for medals with non-disabled athletes. The sole fact that they can stand side by side as athletes is a triumphant culmination of an arduous process of maturing that the society had to go through from the year 1948, when a disabled cox of a boat in the eights competition, Jack Dearlove, was not allowed to take part in the medal-awarding ceremony.
Physical activity affects in the same way both able-bodied and disabled people. However, for the latter group doing sport means something more. It is a form of rehabilitation, but it also restores faith in own abilities and gives motivation to reach more and more ambitious goals. It is often emphasized by, among others, Jasiek Mela, who reached both Poles after having his left crus and right forearm amputated, as well as the racing driver Bartek Ostałowski, who, after losing both arms, learned to drive a car with his feet and obtained the International Automobile Federation (FédérationInternationale de l’Automobile – FIA) racing license. Their determination to succeed is exactly the same as the determination of non-disabled sportspeople, for example Robert Kubica, who returned to car racing after surviving a very serious accident.
Masters of Spirit
In the museum in the Greek city of Olympia, there is a plate commemorating Democrates of Tenedos, a handicapped wrestler who beat all his rivals in competitions. Today, no one puts up marble statues of Paralympic athletes, but they have their permanent, well-deserved place in the history of world sport. In 1904, in St. Louis, an American gymnast with an artificial left leg, George Eyser, won six medals, including three gold (one of them for performing a vault). Another example can be Sgt Károly Tákacs. He lost his right hand in a grenade explosion so he learned to shoot with the left one. He became an Olympic champion in rapid fire pistol shooting at the 1948 Summer Olympics, as well as four years later.
In the same year, in the Stoke Mandeville hospital near London, a neurosurgeon, Ludwig Guttmann, organized a sports competition for WWII invalids staying at the hospital. Guttmann treated hundreds of wounded and paralyzed soldiers. Reintegrating them into society has become his idee fixe, and sport was to be the means to achieve that goal. 16 veterans took part in the archery tournament held on the hospital lawn. The first Paralympic Games were still several years away. They were organized in 1960 in Rome. Poles debuted at the event 12 years later. In 2014, Prince Harry initiated Invictus Games, making a beautiful reference to Guttmann’s idea – during the games, wounded and sick servicemen and women from all over the world, this year also from Poland, compete for medals.
Physical Fitness is Essential
Paralympians claim that doing sport is their rehabilitation. However, the type of activity has to be adjusted to their capabilities. “I can’t exercise in a way that might somehow harm me,” emphasizes Katarzyna Piekart, gold medalist in javelin throw at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. She had had a problem with accepting her disability for years, but training in a group of disabled athletes helped her overcome the lack of confidence. She was born with paresis of the left arm and she had been hiding it inside sleeves for a long time. When she started training javelin throw, every success gave her strength. The 41.15-m throw at the London Paralympics brought her gold.
A visually impaired 200-m gold medalist at the London Paralympics, Mateusz Michalski (his field of vision is about 10%), is called the Polish Usain Bolt. He runs 100 m in 10.78 s. when he was 7 years old, he was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, which, among other things, damages the macula of the retina, responsible for visual acuity. His doctor recommended sport as a form of therapy, since blood circulates faster during physical activity and the eyes are supplied with more blood. Today, Mateusz still runs, but also does barbell presses – he is able to lift even 160 kg during training.
Physically active veterans wounded during missions also have to adjust the discipline to suffered injuries. MCpl Włodzimierz Wysocki had to give up running after having been injured in Iraq, so he switched to mountain biking. Sgt Andrzej Skrajny survived an explosion of a mine under his WAV during a mission in Afghanistan, but he had to learn to walk again. He had always been an active person, so he tried to find a discipline in which his disability would not be a problem. He started exercising in a swimming pool and really came to like diving. Pvt (res) Jarek Kurowski, who in 1996 lost his leg on a mission in Bosnia, is now a successful marathon swimmer.
The members of the Association for Soldiers Wounded and Injured in Foreign Missions know that no medication can replace physical activity. That is why they organize canoeing rallies, bicycle trips, diving courses. The participants are veterans with various degrees of damage to health, some after limb amputations. Reaching a mountain top, finishing a water route in a canoe, or obtaining a scuba diving license helps them believe in their own abilities. When they meet people with similar problems who climb mountains, dive and swim, they start to realize that they can also overcome their limitations.
It is said that faith in your own abilities is half the success. The other half is hard work. It is necessary to believe in your abilities and then work really hard to reach the goal you set for yourself. 15 injured veterans from the team representing Poland at Invictus Games trusted their own capabilities and worked hard on their form. They are going to compete in various disciplines, most of which they had not trained before. Taking part in such a big, international event is a huge motivation to them. Sgt Andrzej Skrajny admitted that if he had not started training for Invictus Games, he would not have learned just how big of a change sport can make. His weight went down, his muscles got stronger. “When my physical condition improved I started to feel better mentally,” he says.
Several thousand disabled athletes train in various clubs and associations in Poland. Today, they can train almost every sport discipline. It is important that they meet trainers who motivate them. One of such people is Ryszard Bukański, a former world champion in archery for disabled people. He thinks that competitors need to be set small, realistic goals, since high expectations can demotivate even the mentally strongest person. Archery is one of the disciplines in which disabled people can easily compete with able-bodied athletes. Even blind people can do it. It is all a question of systematic training, hard work and strong will. Bukański tries to pass this attitude to injured veterans who he has prepared for Invictus Games.
Research conducted by TNS Polska for Renault Polska for the year 2018, regarding the interest of Poles in disabled sportspeople, shows that above all they inspire others with their determination to achieve goals they set for themselves. Every third person said that they teach us how to overcome our own weaknesses, 34% of the interviewees admitted they admire them, and 18% found them “an amazing inspiration for children and teenagers.” According to 15% of the respondents disabled athletes are in no way inferior to non-disabled ones.
The first step is the hardest. Later, you start to set the bar higher. That was the case with Sebastian Marczewski, who broke his spine during a mission in Afghanistan. After that, he could not exercise at the gym, run or climb mountains, which he had all done before the accident. He came to like diving, which proved to be the perfect medicine for his ailments. First, he swam across Hańcza lake at the depth of 105 m. Later, he made the European record of uniformed services by doing a 241-m dive. In 2019 he wants to break the 332-m world record for the deepest scuba dive.
There is something that gives disabled athletes superiority over other sportspeople – their mental strength. They have to overcome more obstacles on their way and put much more effort in their preparations to take part in competitions. “The more valuable becomes the later victory, which builds the power of character,” emphasizes Katarzyna Selwant, a sports psychologist. She adds that overcoming your weaknesses, barriers, cultivating the feeling of having succeeded in braking another life record – it all builds self-confidence, which later pays off in areas of life other than sport.
The thesis is confirmed by Mateusz Michalski, who started sports training as a 15-year-old. At the time he was a reserved, shy and quiet boy. Sport and his first successes transformed the insecure teenager into a self-confident man. “Nothing is impossible for me now,” he claims. Today he runs the distance of 100 m in time comparable to non-disabled competitors.
Katarzyna Selwant argues that confronting your own physical imperfections and accepting them is a very important step towards taking up sports, because it increases internal motivation. She says that we don’t do sports only for medals or fans (which would be external motivation), but above all for ourselves.
Paulina Łozowska, a physiotherapist at the Military Training and Fitness Center in Mrągowo, who also works with injured veterans, often observes her patients during training. She sees how doing sport, acknowledging own progress, helps them to achieve mental balance. They become more confident and they do better in their everyday life.
The example of Witold Kortyka is the best evidence. Severely injured in Iraq during an artillery attack on his convoy, he has a damaged ankle and elbow joint, spine and shoulder. The injuries, however, had not stopped him from walking the 890-kilometer distance of the Way of Saint James (more on this in Polska Zbrojna No 9/2018). Covering the route together with American veterans took Kortyka 40 days. “I returned a changed man,” he says. He claims that the long-lasting physical effort made the traumatic memories of the mission fade away.
“Doing sport makes you feel you are in a group of active people. It is very valuable,” says Katarzyna Selwant.
Sport is one of the important elements of not only rehabilitation, but also resocialization. Not the only one worth mentioning, though. Equally important to the process of returning to physical fitness is finding your new place in society, which can be achieved by economic activity.
A lot has changed since 1997, when the Law on Vocational and Social Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities was passed. This may be confirmed by the data on the population’s economic activity taken from the research conducted by the Central Statistical Office. According to the data, the employment rate of people with disabilities is increasing with every passing year. In 2017, it grew by 2.6% in comparison to 2016, and reached 26.3%, which is still not enough. The situation is similar in the army. Over 700 people have the status of an injured veteran. Some of them took civilian positions in the army, others took advantage of the opportunities provided by the introduction of a new category: fit for service with restrictions. Currently, there are about 80 people with this category in the army.
Support at Every Stage
The government has undertaken work on a project to develop a strategy for disabled persons for the years 2018–2030, coordinated by the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy. The main goal is increasing the participation of disabled people in social and professional life. It is to be achieved by providing comprehensive support to the disabled at each stage of their life, with particular emphasis on rehabilitation, better education and social and professional activity.
Ryszard Bukański, a former world champion in archery for disabled people thinks that competitors need to be set small, realistic goals, since high expectations can demotivate even the mentally strongest person.
In 2014, Prince Harry initiated Invictus Games, where wounded and sick servicemen and women from all over the world compete for medals
Disabled Sport USA
The idea of rehabilitating through sport has been popularized in the USA since the 1960s. In 1967, in order to help the wounded troops returning from Vietnam, other disabled soldiers founded Disabled Sport USA. Today, it is one of the biggest organizations in the USA that helps wounded servicemen to improve the quality of their life by providing them with an opportunity to do sport.
Amputees, persons with brain damage, spinal cord damage, poor vision, multiple sclerosis, and mental illnesses can choose from almost 50 summer and winter sport disciplines, including alpine skiing and snowboarding, sailing, diving, athletics, archery, and running. Injured warriors also take part in canoeing, cycling, they play golf, volleyball, basketball, ride horses or climb. Those with highest results represent the USA at the Paralympics.
Many Do Sports Every Day.
In May 2010, Matthew White was on a mission in Afghanistan. Due to injuries suffered in an IED explosion, doctors had to amputate his leg above the knee. Six months later he joined Disabled Sport USA and took part in Death March through the high desert of New Mexico. He walked the distance of 26.2 miles – and thus started his adventure with running. He took part in a triathlon in New Orleans, and several marathons in Chicago, Boston and New York. Matt Staton, on the other hand, a former captain in the American army, was injured on a mission in Iraq in 2004. He had injuries of his leg and left hip, while multiple exposure to IEDs caused traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After three years, he had to leave the army. Today, he is a certified instructor of skiing and diving on open waters. He also helps other injured veterans to get their life back on track through sports.
Joel Hunt returned from a mission with brain injury. He spent a year in a wheelchair. His parents persuaded him to take part in a skiing camp for veterans with TBI. In December 2008 he learned how to ski. Since then, he has participated in many prestigious competitions as an excellent alpine skier.
autor zdjęć: sierż. Patryk Cieliński