A little more than a decade ago, knowledge of Paralympic sports in the United States was so small it was almost invisible.
Polling in 2002 showed that less than five percent of Americans knew about the Paralympic Movement, said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Today, that number has grown to 86 percent.
Yet still, many young men and women across the United States who might be eligible to compete as Paralympians are unaware about possible opportunities to do so.
“We’re consistently identifying athletes that are competing on their track & field high school team, or young men and women that have served their country, they’re coming home with a physical disability and are very interested in competitive sport,” yet don’t know about the athletic possibilities, Huebner said.
Because of that awareness gap, U.S. Paralympics will launch a program called Gateway to Gold to open doors to potential athletes and raise the public profile even higher about the Paralympic Movement.
“This is one strategy for us to just enhance awareness about the opportunities in Paralympic sport and hopefully identify some of those athletes, many that are currently competing in able-bodied events around the United States,” Huebner said.
The official announcement of the Gateway to Gold program was made on Monday at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah. It’s the first time U.S. Paralympics has created a nationwide initiative to recruit athletes who are capable of competing at an elite level.
The goal of the program is to expand opportunities for eligible athletes while also raising the success level of the U.S. team at future Paralaympic Games. U.S. teams have been consistently strong at the Paralympic Games, but there is room for overall improvement. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Team USA finished fourth in the medals count, with 98, behind China (231), Great Britain (120) and Russia (102). At the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Team USA ranked fifth with 13 medals; Russia led all countries with 38.
“We’re just hoping to reach more of those athletes (competing in able-bodied sports, or not at all), because if we do that, it will help us win more medals for future Paralympic teams,” Huebner said.
Among the features of Gateway to Gold are:
Julie O’Neill, the USOC’s team leader for sport performance, will be overseeing a team of 10 to 12 people that will implement Gateway to Gold.
That team will work to set up the talent-identification testing and camps that will be both for general athletic aptitude for tryout camps and sport-specific skills.
“I think it can be very impactful,” O’Neill said. “We have never focused on a very specific and broad-based talent-identification for Paralympic sport. And coming out of London, we determined that to be a priority, which is why we’ve gone this direction and put this emphasis on it, to get out there and identify those athletes and build our pipeline.”
Huebner said Gateway to Gold is a long-term initiative and part of U.S. Paralympics’ strategic plan.
The key component, of course, is the talent-evaluation events that will be held across the country. In the past, athletes have come into the Paralympic domain in a sort of haphazard manner — “every which way,” Huebner said — learning about opportunities through word of mouth, their doctors, television coverage, a local event or perhaps a TV commercial produced by one of U.S. Paralympics’ partners, such as The Hartford.
Now, through the targeted messages and talent-identification events, it’s hoped that flow of athletic talent is increased significantly.
As O’Neill noted, awareness of the Paralympic Movement has risen steadily. But it’s hoped that Gateway to Gold will build on those gains and make an impact on athletes who haven’t taken the initiative to connect with the Paralympic program.
“I think there’s probably athletes or individuals out there who might know about the Paralympics, but maybe haven’t tried it or aren’t sure if they’re good enough to participate in a sport, and we really want to target both of those groups, both those who aren’t aware, and those who are aware and haven’t given Paralympic sport a try who might be eligible.”
Success with this push could lead to tangible results at upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020 as well as at the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games — and beyond.
“Hopefully (we will) be able to get those athletes who exhibit talent into the pipeline … and develop them into the best athletes they can be, which ultimately feeds up to our national teams across the NGBs as well as the Paralympic team every two years,” O’Neill said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.