It might sound cliché, but going to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games really was a dream come true for Anjali Forber-Pratt.
Forber-Pratt knew from an early age that she wanted to be an elite athlete.
She set those goals and then accomplished them.
The two-time Paralympic bronze medalist shared that success story with 50 young children Tuesday at the Stephens Family YMCA in Champaign, Ill. The event was part of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program.
Forber-Pratt, who was paralyzed from the waist down from neurological disorder transverse myelitis before her first birthday, discovered wheelchair racing as a 5-year-old watching the Boston Marathon go past her home in Natick, Mass.
“I had never seen anything like wheelchair racing before,” said Forber-Pratt, who was born in India and lived in an orphanage for two and a half months before a family in Natick adopted her. “And it blew me away. (Growing up) I wasn’t sure I would be able to go to college, have a job, have these dreams. It wasn’t till I saw the marathon and started meeting adults with disabilities that I learned there was this whole world of possibility out there.”
That’s what created her dreams of winning the Boston Marathon, becoming a Paralympian and attending the University of Illinois.
Forber-Pratt finished fourth in the 2011 Boston Marathon and completed her doctorate from Illinois — where she also received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees — in Human Resource Education this past spring.
She asked the children at the YMCA to share their dreams and what they wanted to be when they grew up, and was delighted by the answers.
“It was everything from an acrobat to just like you, to a doctor, a veterinarian and a Jedi,” she said.
Forber-Pratt, 27, also talked about how we all have differences — whether it’s a disability or color of skin or length of hair — and about obstacles that can get in the way of dreams.
“They could relate to that,” she said. “They were able to tell me what an obstacle is and how important it is to believe in yourself.
“They could identify some of the obstacles … and who can help make those dreams realities.”
The children also got to ask questions about Forber-Pratt’s racing wheelchair and see her medals.
Forber-Pratt, who joined the national team in 2007, has bronze medals from the 400-meter T53 and 400x100-meter T 53/54 relay races at the Beijing Games.
She won gold (200) and two silver (100, 400) medals at last year’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, and set a world record in the 200 in May 2011.
Forber-Pratt enjoyed talking to the children of Champaign, many of whom have seen her training in town or give talks at local schools.
“To me that’s part of the responsibility of being a member of Team USA,” she said. “I want to be a positive role model.”
Forber-Pratt will also visit the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago in July as an athlete ambassador for the Team for Tomorrow program. Started in 2008, Team for Tomorrow is a humanitarian relief fund through which America’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes participate in efforts to give back to local communities as well as people in need throughout the world.
First, Forber-Pratt will try to punch her ticket to the London 2012 Paralympic Games during the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Trials later this month in Indianapolis.
She hopes to qualify in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races and will try the 800, a longer race for the successful sprinter.
“I’m feeling pretty confident about those (sprint) races,” Forber-Pratt said.
“It’ll be some fierce competition. I’m looking forward to it.”
With the experience of Beijing and her recent success behind her, Forber-Pratt is looking forward to London.
“For me, it gives me confidence going into London,” she said. “To have that international games experience under my belt, I know what to expect. I know there are pressures and expectations and I know I have to just trust in my training and be the best I can be.”