Last night the Presidential Delegation to the Paralympics gathered for a closing dinner. Several of us spoke and I told the story about how the German poet Goethe traveled to the Vatican. He was led into the Sistine Chapel, where he saw Michelangelo’s ceiling and said: “Now I understand what man is capable of achieving.” Having spent the last four days at the Paralympics, I have a much better understanding of what men and women are capable of achieving.
I saw blind men and women skiing. I saw people missing limbs playing hockey. I saw people in wheel chairs curling. I saw a German biathlete with no arms shoot his rifle – flawlessly – by pulling a string connected to the trigger with his teeth.
I had an opportunity to talk with many of the athletes and came to understand that it was not what they could do despite their disability. It was what they could just plain do. Their ability to adapt was inspiring. It sounds trite. But watching them, and meeting them, really does renew one’s faith in humanity. You should all watch as much of the Paralympics as you can. I promise you will be glad you did. And you will never again say you can’t do something.
It was also an honor to be part of the Presidential Delegation to the Paralympics which was led by General Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Among the General’s postings was a stint from 1999 to 2003 as the Chief of Staff of the Army. The U.S. Paralympics team has several members who are veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were particularly excited to get a chance to visit with the General and his wife Patty.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to see what a “sustainable” Olympics/Paralympics looks like. In addition to a carbon neutral commitment, the Vancouver Olympics Committee and its city, provincial and federal partners created some great environmentally friendly facilities. At the Vancouver Athletes’ Village, Administrator Jackson posed for pictures at an environmentally friendly solar powered trash can that automatically compacts trash so it needs to be emptied less often.
Also in our delegation was Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to President Obama for Disability Policy. Kareem, who is himself visually impaired, coordinates the Administration’s efforts to ensure equal opportunity for Americans with disabilities.
In addition to government officials, our delegation included four former Paralympians and prominent members of the disabled community.
Jim Martinson lost both his legs in Vietnam – and he’s the craziest wheelchair racer you will ever meet. He founded one of the first racing chair manufacturing companies in the U.S. In addition to winning races, he has inspired others to excel. At the Athletes’ Village in Vancouver we were joined on our tour by Rick Hansen, the legendary Canadian athlete and philanthropist. Jim and Rick had competed in many races together and are old friends. After giving Jim a big hug, Rick turned to everyone and proudly said “That’s my mentor.”
Michael May is visually impaired but you never get any hint from looking at his resume. After numerous successful careers, including establishing several hi-tech companies, he launched the Sendero Group, which developed the first accessible GPS for the blind. Mike likes to ski with his kids. They lead the way but he says they got tired of giving him directions, so they started singing instead, usually Jingle Bells, and Mike just follows their voices down the mountain.
Bonnie St. John is an incredible athlete and motivator. She was the first African-American to win a medal, Olympic or Paralympic, in ski racing. She did it without her right leg. She took home a silver and two bronze medals at the Innsbruck Paralympics in 1984. Since then she has been inspiring others through her books and personal appearances.
Melissa Stockwell was the first female amputee from Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Iraqi War Veteran to qualify for the Paralympics. She competed in the Beijing Paralympics in swimming. Now she’s training for a triathlon.
While we were there we did some world-class eating. Particularly at the athletes’ dining rooms. You can do some damage at a free McDonalds – to say nothing of seafood, Italian, sushi, and pretty much anything else you can think of. I think a few of us broke the Olympic calorie-consumption records. Winter and Summer. The stuff Olympic legends are made of.
As we were leaving, Bonnie St. John said being a part of the Presidential delegation was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She was right. And for me I had that once-in-a-lifetime experience three times in the last month. I am very lucky.