Sara Koehnke graduated from Highland Park High School in Highland Park, Ill., less than a month ago and cannot wait for her next big adventure. For most, that would mean college. But for Koehnke, she will make a pit stop in Beijing, China, before she enrolls in Knox College in the fall.
In early September, Koehnke, who was born with just one hand, will travel to Beijing for the 2008 Paralympic Games as a part of the Paralympic Academy Beijing program. U.S. Paralympics is sponsoring the program, sending 25 student-athletes and 10 coaches to the Paralympic Games.
Similar to the rest of the student-athletes selected to the Academy, Koehnke has found a passion for sports in her life. She competes in track and field, cross country and fencing. The student-athlete trains herself and uses the Paralympic Games as a model for success. She sees what others like her can do on an international stage and tells herself she never wants to be held back because of her physical disability.
"Whenever someone tells me I can't do something, I want to do it even more," Koehnke explained. "Don't listen to anybody that tells you you can't do something. A lot of people feel bad for (people with) disabilities, but then you see the Paralympics."
Koehnke is just one of 25 student-athletes hoping to find inspiration for life and sport in Beijing.
John Register, Associate Director for Community and Military Programs,U.S. Paralympics, said the program focuses on "giving kids that have done a phenomenal job in schools and academia, as well as in their sports, a chance to meet their heroes and see the Paralympic Games and give them that vision of becoming a Paralympic athlete."
The student-athletes and coaches will be sent over in two waves, both accompanied by U.S. Paralympic staff members. The first wave will attend the Opening Ceremonies, while the second will attend the Closing Ceremonies.
"Each one of the kids is very energetic and very excited about the trip," Register said. "For each one of the kids it's going to be a life-changing experience. I don't think there are too many people on the trip who have been to China before."
The participants will have the chance to attend the Games' competition, as well as meet and greet type activities with some of the Paralympians.
"Every morning, or at some point in the day, they'll have a Paralympic athlete that's on the team come over and speak to the group," Register said. "They'll probably have a Paralympic coach come over and speak to the group as well."
For many of the student-athletes, only in their dreams have they had this opportunity before.
"They'll get a chance to meet their Paralympic heroes on the world stage," Register said.
But the Academy represents more than just meeting talented athletes. It creates awareness for all athletes with a physical disability throughout the United States.
"I think the ultimate goal is not so much to help them become a Paralympic athlete," Register said. "Our goal is that these student-athletes will energize their communities and help create more awareness about Paralympic sport in their local community program. To help drive our Paralympic network, to help brand Paralympics across the United States...to really show to people and help explain to people what Paralympics is all about."
Deborah Jackson, one of the coaches traveling with the group, believes the program is something she can learn from and apply to her life back home. The Durham, N.C., native works as a Patient Care Coordinator for an orthotic and prosthetic facility, and it was her son, an amputee, who sparked her interest in the program.
After Beijing, Jackson wants to act as the liaison between the Paralympians and the children she works with on the East coast.
"I hope to gain awareness of more children with (physical disabilities) and what they can do," Jackson said. "I would just like to be motivated by the Paralympians and their drive. I would like to funnel that energy and bring it back to the children here in North Carolina."
The Academy is a program in which young athletes watch older ones achieve their dreams. But for Jackson, it is one in which a young athlete can learn from an older one and take the next step toward achieving his own goal. She hopes to integrate the lessons she learns in Beijing into the lives of the children she works with, including her son's.
"I think I can motivate them to achieve their dreams and perhaps open up new avenues for sports," Jackson said.
Register said the program also aims to further students' cultural and political boundaries. In addition to the three to four days of competition student-athletes will see, one day of their trip will be dedicated to cultural immersion.
"I think it's going to be an interesting social shock for me," Koehnke said.
Register has molded the program into an experience beyond what a teacher can create in a classroom setting or a coach can produce on the field.
"In the United States we tend to be on a pretty big island," Register explained. "We go from Maine to California, and from Washington to Florida, and we're still speaking the same language. Most Americans don't have the chance to get out and experience another culture, and so they get very defensive and very afraid about other people trying to come in or speaking different languages. (When) you get outside of the United States, you really appreciate other cultures and other languages and accept people for truly who they are."
This is just one of the many opportunities student-athlete Colbie Bratlie has been offered because of her physical disability.
"I've gotten to meet a lot of people and gone to a lot of different places," Bratlie said.
The 14-year-old participates in several sports, and won the 2007 National Junior Disability Championships in swimming.
Bratlie said Beijing will probably be the best place she has traveled to, though, as she looks forward to meeting the athletes and seeing how people from different cultures interact with one another.
Meanwhile, Darius Lopes, 16, was inspired just by the fact that he was accepted into the program.
"It's a great honor," Lopes said. "Not many people I know can say that they went to Beijing, China. It inspires me to be at that level. Now I want to go and play in the Paralympics. It will make me work harder. It will make me work 100 percent all of the time."
Lopes, a wheelchair user, has the opportunity to watch Paralympic athletes achieve their dreams.
"I just want to learn what's possible," he said.
Lopes' grandmother, Cheryl Lopes, will accompany him on the trip, and is maybe even more excited than he is. She said it will be a learning experience for him that most kids his age don't have.
"He'll learn how proud (he) is to have a (physical) disability - (that) it's not something to be ashamed of," Cheryl said. "He'll learn about competing and the intricate parts of how it runs. He'll learn about culture and food."
U.S. Paralympics tries to get an accurate representation of athletes from all disability groups, ethnic groups, geographic groups and genders. Athletes must be between 12 and 18 years old by the time of the trip.
Bratile knows a lot of people that applied for the program and was very thankful when she found out she was offered a spot.
"I was really excited, and kind of surprised actually," Bratile said about her selection.
Koehnke's reaction to Register's call was not quite as subtle.
"I think I might've screamed his ear off," Koehnke said with a laugh.
Coaches interested in being a part of the Academy must send letters of recommendations from supervisors and an essay, and have coaching experience in adaptive sports.
In 2004, U.S. Paralympics sponsored the inaugural Academy, sending six student-athletes and six coaches to Athens. One of those student-athletes, Greta Neimanas, is now going to be representing the U.S. at the Paralympic Games in cycling in Beijing.
"Four years ago in Athens, she was in their seat," Register said about Neimanas. "She fell in love with the sport of cycling, bought a bicycle and now she's one of our Paralympic athletes."
All six of the athletes who traveled to Athens came back a new person.
"Every athlete that went on that trip was changed in one way or another," Register said. "Their determination to pursue sport or pursue whatever their interests were was heightened."
Koehnke hopes the trip to Beijing is the same for her as Athens was for Neimanas. She hopes someone over in Beijing will seek out her positive attitude and potential as an athlete. She hopes to find someone who will help her train so she can achieve her dreams. She hopes, in fact she just about knows, that it will be a life-changing experience.
"I'm hoping to just find different things that inspire me," Koehnke said. "It's more just hoping to soak up everything. I don't really have any expectations."
Joel Adams (Country Club Hills, Ill.)
Kari Banta (Colleyville, Texas)
Stephen Binning (Phoenix, Ariz.)
Samuel Blakley (Henefer, Utah)
Bryce Boarman (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
Colbie Bratlie (Quantico, Va.)
David Brown (Hazelwood, Mo.)
Carmen Campbell (Spokane, Wash.)
Alexandra Capellini (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Dominick Dell (Arvada, Colo.)
Dalton Dietrich (Anchorage, Alaska)
Margaret Frederick (Kennesaw, Ga.)
Sarah Goldman (Tampa, Fla.)
Marissa Helms (Bowling Green, Ky.)
Benjamin Kenyon (Minnetonka, Minn.)
Sara Koehnke (Highland Park, Ill.)
Darius Lopes (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Charles McCormick (Mathias, W. Va.)
Anthony Melena (Long Beach, Calif.)
John Rockenbach (Logandale, Nev.)
Adam Saldaña (Oklahoma City, Okla.)
Roderick Sewell (Fairfield, Ala.)
Joshua Swoverland (Avon, Ind.)
Taylor Troha (Selma, Ala.)
Stephanie Vrettakos (Ellicott City, Md.)
Elaine Adams (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
Deborah Jackson (Durham, N.C.)
Genevieve Marshall (Houston, Texas)
Aaron Moffett (San Bernardino, Calif.)
David Poulin (Anchorage, Alaska)
William Schneider (New York, N.Y.)
Collin Shepherd (Indianapolis, Ind.)
Thomas Southall (Aurora, Colo.)
Trent Thenhaus (Carol Stream, Ill.)
Judith Thompson (Evans, Ga.)