What are U.S. Paralympians thankful for?

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Nov. 22, 2012, 11 a.m. (ET)
Justin ZookJustin Zook won his third gold medal in the 100m backstroke at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the sports moment he is most thankful for.

With Americans celebrating Thanksgiving today, USParalympics.org asked some of the nation's top Paralympic athletes to talk about everything Thanksgiving, including what makes them most thankful. Stay tuned throughout the week for more Thanksgiving chatter with U.S. Paralympians and hopefuls. 

Thursday's questions

Non-sports related, what are you most thankful for this year?

Victoria Arlen, swimming
“I'm most thankful for my family, friends and being able to be alive. It's been a long journey and my family and friends have been absolutely incredible and supportive. Everyday I'm thankful for them. Not just on thanksgiving do I give thanks, I give thanks for every day I have with them.”

Cat Bouwkamp, wheelchair fencing
“I'm most thankful for being able to receive a job this year when I know there are many people out there who are struggling in this economy.”

Steve Cash, sled hockey
“I am most thankful for my friends, teammates included, and family.”

Kelly Crowley, para-cycling
“I am most thankful for the weekend I spent with my extended family in March, celebrating my grandfather's life.”

Ryan Estep, wheelchair fencing
“I’m most thankful for my family. They have been with me through the ups and downs in life. They’re always a huge support system to fall back on.”

Lex Gillette, track and field
“I'm most thankful for the team behind me who helped get me to the Paralympic Games, the Americans who I represented as I stood on the podium receiving my Paralympic medal.”

Emmy Kaiser, wheelchair tennis
“I have a lot to be thankful for this year. What I am most thankful for would definitely be my family that I get to go back home to and my terrific boyfriend of three years. I cannot wait to see him again after not seeing him since before London.”

Taylor Lipsett, sled hockey
“I am definitely thankful for my wife and everything she sacrifices for me to be able to pursue my Paralympic dream. I am also thankful that I finally landed the job I had been pursing for the past three years. I am now a Portfolio Manager Associate with Bank of America, U.S. Trust.”

Angela Madsen, track and field
“Personal journeys that have enriched and strengthened my faith and my relationships with family and friends, being relatively healthy and cancer free for another year are the things I am most thankful for. I was able to purchase an ocean rowing vessel for my Trans Pac Solo Row to Hawaii in 2013. This upcoming journey or adventure can be followed online on my website www.rowoflife.com.”

J. Dee Marinko, sitting volleyball
“I would have to say that I am most thankful for a wonderful family.  After everything that we have been through, we stick together and are always here for each other.”

Asya Miller, goalball
“I am thankful equality prevailed in this year’s elections.”

Kerri Morgan, track and field
“I am so thankful for the friends and family that supported me through my journey in London.”

Greta Neimanas, para-cycling
“It’s hard to pick one thing to be most thankful for. There are so many people, moments and opportunities that I’m grateful to have- or have had- in my life this year but I’m going to have to say I’m most thankful for the love that I have in my life.

"Without love, life would be miserable. That’s pretty obvious but it took a while to fully realize it. That’s not to say I was doom and gloom before but in the past year especially, I’ve opened myself- my heart- up to what the world has to offer and have been pleasantly surprised by how awesome everything is after making that effort. Realizing how much love there is to be had and how much there is to give to others really has made the sun shine brighter, food taste better and make grass look greener. My sister once told me I’m a hopeless romantic and I think she may be right.

"Love is applicable to every aspect of your life and brings so much to it; love of sport, love of life, love of travel, new experiences, competition, friends, family, significant others, ups and downs in sport and ‘real life’, love of the little things because sometimes there isn’t anything bigger. I may put up a hardened, crusty shell of an exterior sometimes but inside I’m just a big softie. I love love.”

Justin Zook, swimming

“I am the most thankful to have two healthy parents. Both my mother and father have had cancer scares in the last five years, most recently father and prostate cancer last year. I am thankful they are both healthy now. I am also thankful for a job opportunity I accepted as the head age group coach at Miami Country Day Aquatics which allows me to be closer to my parents.”

What sports moment are you most thankful for this year?

Victoria Arlen, swimming
“The sports moment I'm most thankful for this year would happen to be making the team for the London 2012 Paralympic Games and winning gold on the final night of the Games. It was so surreal and incredible and I was honored to have been able to represent Team USA.”

Cat Bouwkamp, wheelchair fencing
“My favorite sports moment of the year would obviously be the Paralympic Games. But specifically, I am thankful for that feeling when I stepped onto the track at the Opening Ceremony.”

Steve Cash, sled hockey
“I am definitely most thankful for when the team and I won gold at the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Sledge Hockey A Pool World Championships. It is one of my most cherished accomplishments and still fresh in my mind. Not only was it the victory but the cohesiveness and collective effort as a group that makes it such an unforgettable achievement. I am also thankful for the fact that I can still play the great sport of hockey.”

Kelly Crowley, para-cycling
“I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to race at the Paralympic Games. Even more, I'm thankful that my talents and hard work paid off, and that I got to stand on the podium. Twice. The British fans were incredible. I feel very lucky to have had that experience.”

Ryan Estep, wheelchair fencing
“The Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games. I’m so happy we had such a great turn out for the Games. It was amazing to walk into the arena with my team.”

Lex Gillette, track and field
“When I knew I had won a Paralympic medal, I had the opportunity to grab the U.S. flag with both hands and hoist it above my head for everyone to see. That's a moment I will never forget.”

Emmy Kaiser, wheelchair tennis
“This isn't exactly a sports moment on court but it is still from London so I say it counts. Being able to be a part of Paralympic Games Closing Ceremony with not just our tennis team and the whole 2012 U.S. Paralympic Team but my best friend on tour from another country made the night one of the best of my life so far.”

Taylor Lipsett, sled hockey
“I am definitely thankful for my International Paralympic Committee Sledge Hockey A Pool World Championship gold medal, because everyone on the team really stepped up and performed when it really counted. We became the first team in history to win back to back world championships, and Team USA has now won the last three major tournaments, the 2009 and 2012 worlds and the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. Coach [Jeff] Sauer always tell us that ‘It’s great to get to the top, but the real challenge is staying there.’ And for us to be able to do that for the past three years is really amazing.”

Angela Madsen, track and field
“I broke some world records and medaled at the Paralympic Games in a shot put, a new sport for me. I also coached at some Paralympic Sport Club events. I am thankful for all of the moments and opportunities that I have had and for my ability to make the most from them.”

J. Dee Marinko, sitting volleyball
“I would have to say that traveling to Egypt and competing for a chance to qualify for the Paralympic Games in London. We didn't make it this year but I am thankful that we had a chance.”

Asya Miller, goalball
“The sports moment I am most thankful for is winning nationals.”

Kerri Morgan, track and field
“I’m most thankful for my two races in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the 100m and the 200m. I was able to win bronze in both. I am especially proud of the 100m race where I had poor start but stayed focused and was able to come from behind and still able to reach the medal podium.”

Greta Neimanas, para-cycling
“The sports moment that I’m most thankful for wasn’t during competition or even on the bike at all. Walking into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics in London was absolutely the highlight of my year, if not athletic career. Sure, it was the second time going to ‘The Show’ but I was not prepared in the slightest for what happened.

"Walking into a stadium of 80,000 people who are all there to watch you compete is incredible. If you get the chance, try it sometime. At the Games, not only are there 80,000 people in a stadium looking at you, there are fireworks going off, laser light shows, music blasting, dancers, hundreds of cameras and broadcast lights all over the place, it’s quite difficult to see or hear much of anything. At the same time, all in a few moments, it hits you that you’re at the Games. Everything you’ve trained for in the past four, six, eight, ten years has led to that moment. That moment when you walk into the stadium with your best friends- your teammates, family, really- the people you’ve cried tears of pain, sadness and joy with; that you’ve shared successes and failures with; that you’ve experienced some of the best moments of your life with, is when you realize that it’s all real. All of it is real, you’re not dreaming and you’ve made it. It’s a whirlwind of emotions to start with and then, and then add on what’s about to happen next.

"We’re walking through the stadium, looking around and we spot a giant, American flag hanging over the railing on the second balcony so we wave to the people and then we looked closer. The people standing behind the flag waving madly back at us were wearing very distinctive USA clothes- an 18” stovepipe American flag had, flag pants, flag shirts. It was the family of one of the cyclists. Now, I’m not a statistician and I’m surprised I could even spell ‘statistician’ on the first try but what are the chances of that happening? What are the chances of, in a sea of people and lights, picking out one of your best friend’s family? I have chills writing about it now. Tears welled up, we held up the line of athletes and didn’t care a single lick. Seeing his family made me think of all the sacrifices they and every athlete’s family has to make for their athlete to get to the Games. It’s hard work and sacrifice on their part as much as it is ours.

"After the ceremony I talked to my family who was in the stadium as well, only to learn that we looked and waved directly to them without realizing it was them. Between tears, a perma-grin, and all the lights we couldn’t make out their faces. After that, I don’t know what moment could possibly be better.”

Justin Zook, swimming
“I am incredibly thankful for receiving the opportunity to represent the United States of America at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. With a roller coaster of a year, there was not a better potential end to my swimming career than winning my third gold medal in the 100 backstroke.”

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