Journal of My Paralympic Journey
The weeks leading up to my August 22nd departure date for the London Paralympics were filled with countless practice hours, various media opportunities and several good luck parties. While not sure what to expect when I arrived in London, I tried to reflect back upon my memories from my Paralympic experience back in 1984 for solace as to what was to come. Unbeknownst to me at the time I was doing mental preparation for London that there was no way I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams that the Paralympic games could have elevated to the level of what I witnessed in London in 2012. My days in London were filled with countless memories that will last a lifetime as detailed in my journal below.
On August 22nd my husband Matt, who was traveling as a staff member for personal assistance, and I met up with Head Coach Sean O'Neill and Tahl Leibovitz at Dulles International Airport for our connecting flight over to Heathrow in London. After a three hour delay at Dulles for a mechanical problem, which I was glad happened on the ground and not in the air, we finally boarded the plane and took off for our 7 hour trek to London.
The arrival in London on August 23rd wound up being three hours later than scheduled due to the delay in Dulles and that meant Sean, Tahl, Matt and I would not meet up with Assistant Coach Keith Evans and Pam Fontaine until we arrived at The Paralympic Village. Upon arrival at the Village we were greeted by the news that the whole team will be living in the same four bedroom , two bathroom apartment. This led me to believe we better establish team unity and do it quickly before a team member is mysteriously found floating in the Thames River by a London Bobbie!! Like it or not we were all roommates for the next 20 days so off we go to team processing to pick up our official Team USA apparel from our wonderful sponsors Nike, Ralph Lauren and Oakley. After four tedious hours of trying on article after article of clothing, the team rounded up countless bags of awesome merchandise and headed back to our apartment in The Village. Unfortunately the coaches and Matt did not receive nowhere near the amount of goodies as Tahl, Pam and I so it was a good thing the laundry services for the team were top notch so they could have clean clothes to wear on a daily basis. Our first night in London concluded with a team dinner at the dining hall. The Dining Hall, which we were told was big enough to hold 600 double decker buses, had almost every choice of ethnic cuisine you could imagine. There was even a McDonald’s for those that preferred a familiar taste from back home.
The teams third and fourth days in London allowed us time to adjust to the new time zone. We practiced twice a day for a couple hours and got a chance to tour The Paralympic Village and shop at The Westfield Mall. The Village has apartments that housed thousands of athletes and officials during the Paralympics. The Village also included a few shops, a medical facility, a media area and several leisure facilities for all occupants.The village was designed with 11 residential apartments which equated to about six blocks built around communal squares and courtyards. The Westfield Mall was within walking distance of the Village and is one of the largest Malls in Europe. So far the team is really having a great time together and team unity does not seem like it will be an issue at this point. During these first couple days the team was treated to a fashion show by Tahl who was more than willing to show everyone in the apartment how he looked in all the new merchandise from our sponsors. The way he was strutting his stuff left one wondering why he has not been named America’s Next Top Model after being discovered on the streets of NYC.
On the morning of August 26th each member of the team taped an interview for the YouTube Paralympic channel. Then it was off to our first practice in the main playing hall at the Excel Center which is quite impressive with state of the art tables, electronic scoring and seating for about 6,000. The draws were distributed today which Tahl, Pam and I were eagerly awaiting. The team spent the rest of the day locating video of our first round opponents, strategizing and resting up for the competition.
On Monday August 27th our morning practice was the only one for the day because our team members met up with all the other members of Team USA in the evening to join in on a Welcoming Flag Raising Ceremony held in The Village.The Welcoming Ceremony included a dynamic theatre performance with actors from the National Youth Theater of Great Britain doing dances and acrobatics to a medley of songs from the music group Queen. The Flag Raising ceremony was attended by members of the Paralympic Games Organizing Committee and the mayor of the Paralympic Village Eva Loeffler. Ms. Loeffler is the daughter of the founder of the Paralympic Games Ludwig Guttmann. The 2012 London Paralympics was the biggest Paralympic Games ever featuring 4,280 athletes from 166 countries competing in 20 different sports.
August 28th brought more of the same for now with team practices and video review for matches against our first round opponents. August 28th was a special day for Matt and I as we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary at the Dining Hall in the Village with hundreds of others. Who could ask for a more romantic celebration!! Matt did arrange to have flowers delivered to our apartment in The Village on this special day, that was a total shock to me and still not sure how he arranged that.
Day 6 is about to begin. Our racquets went over to the Excel Center with Sean to be tested. All our racquets passed except one of Tahl’s that got re-glued that night by Sean and passed the next day. The team will be watching video of our opponents and strategizing again today. I play the number 1 seed player from China tomorrow at 1PM. My opponent was the Gold Medal winner at the 2008 Paralympics in Bejing for Class 1-2 and I was told this match would be the feature match on table one and would be televised. Talk about the luck of the draw!! Later in the day Pam and I had complimentary salon appointments thanks to Proctor and Gamble. Pam was not a willing participant of the salon appointments at first and I thought I was going to have to put a tow rope from wheelchair to wheelchair just to get her there. Once we got there Pam enjoyed it but I still could not convince her to get her nails done, the nail experience would have been a tad bit to “girlie” for her. After our salon appointments the team will be getting all spiffed up in all our Ralph Lauren clothing and our berets for Opening Ceremonies tonight. The team decided to just do pictures with our clothing on and not attend Opening Ceremonies due to early morning matches. Then tomorrow Let the 2012 London Paralympic Games begin!!
The first match for Pam and I on August 30th did not have the outcome we were hoping for. Pam lost a tough match to a player from Korea and I lost in front of about six camera lenses in my face to my Chinese opponent. My family from Seattle who traveled to London to support the team were on hand to watch my first match waving the US flag and cheering loudly. What an awesome feeling it was to have my family in London to support not only myself but the whole team. Tahl’s first match had a late start time so Pam and I chose to support him from afar because we had early matches the next day. Table Tennis among other sports had it’s own television station so we were hoping to see Tahl back at the apartment on TV. Tahl won his opening round match which was great. After the tough losses by Pam and I we decided to drown our sorrows at the mall and enjoy a great dinner with my family.
August 31st was a tough day for Team USA Paralympic Table Tennis. Pam, Tahl and I all got knocked out of medal contention today in singles. Pam and I played features matches on table 1 this morning. Pam’s opponent was from Croatia and my opponent was from Italy. Pam, Matt, my family and I had a little time to support Team USA sit volleyball before Tahl played his evening match. Tahl lost a tough match to a player from France and unfortunately this ended Tahl’s play at the London Paralympics because he does not have a team partner for the team event. Pam and I do not play again until the Team Event on Wednesday against France.
Due to the unfortunate fact that Tahl, Pam and I were knocked out of singles play the team will be meeting up with my family around lunchtime to do some touring around London. The team, along with my brother Norm who was our tour guide and his wife Carin and my nephews Jack and Frankie, navigated around the scenic, historic streets of London to enjoy time at The Tower of London and The London Bridge. All the sightseeing made our little tour group hungry so we treated ourselves to a pizza lunch at a restaurant near the Thames River. My Paralympic journey has been extra special for me because I have been able to share it with my husband and family members traveling with us from Seattle. It was great to have them here to to cheer the team on and show us around London when the team had time.
Back to the table on September 2nd so Pam and I can prepare for our team match against France on Wednesday. The team was tired after our featured doubles match on the practice courts with Pam and I taking on our coaches. While our coaches talk a lot of trash their tactics against us just to win were borderline cheating according to our acting coach Tahl. Last I heard according to wheelchair table tennis rules your butt was supposed to stay in your chair while trying to reach for a ball. Tomorrow morning's rematch should be a heated battle as Pam and I plan to teach our coaches a lesson and play by the rules in doing so. Pam and I went to the clinic for a well deserved massage that evening to help prepare for our rematch in the morning. My brother and his family get to tour the Olympic village tomorrow afternoon after the much anticipated rematch. My nephews are really excited about this opportunity and we plan to cap the night off with a nice dinner at an authentic British restaurant.
Had an awesome day on September 3rd. Pam and I beat the coaches in doubles and I got to spend several hours with my family touring inside the Olympic Village. At least Pam and I did not have to hear any more trash talking from the coaches, remember guys you are only as good as your last match. While my family visited the Village, my nephews were excited to play table tennis in one of the many leisure facilities and try to mirror some the awesome shots they witnessed while watching our matches. Capped the night off with a good authentic British meal now time to relax.
Couple team members left the morning of September 4th at 4am. Sean, Pam , Matt and I are here until Monday. The team will be practicing today and watching video of our opponents in preparation for our team match against France tomorrow evening at 4:30. Not only were we allowed to watch video of table tennis but all day television coverage from the table tennis hall at the Excel Center was also available for us to observe.
Our team match on September 5th against the French is over and Pam and I fought hard but lost. Pam and I are very disappointed in the outcome against France because we really wanted to advance and have the opportunity to play the team from China. For me personally it would have been a chance to avenge the loss of my first round match. We are now USA team supporters and tourists until we depart early Monday morning. It was an honor to represent the United States in London and while the results were not what the team hoped for I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity. Table Tennis in the US has a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world to win at this level. Hopefully with the experience the team received in London it will help pave the way for better results in Rio in 2016.
The team and my family a great time touring around London on September 6th. We got to see so many historic places and take some awesome pictures of the London Eye, Big Ben, The Prime Ministers House and Westminster Abbey. We even got to take part in a mass at Westminster Abbey and received the Eucharist that was really great. My family from Seattle will be leaving tomorrow morning and many thanks to them for their support and cheers, they made an awesome experience even greater. I will never forget the feeling I had when Pam and I entered the Excel Center for our team event match to my family cheering us on waving the US flag.
Whats left of the team in London will be cheering on Team USA in other sporting events for the next two days. The team choose to take in some quad tennis matches on both days. Team USA tennis got the job done by winning a Silver and Bronze medal in the Quad Singles Event. While I would have much rather been playing in the finals of the team event in Table Tennis, it was great to have the opportunity to support other Team USA members in their quest to win a Paralympic medal. The Paralympic journey in London for me will end tonight at the Closing Ceremonies. The team will dress up again in a different Ralph Lauren outfits and head to Closing ceremonies. The rumors were true and Coldplay did perform at the Closing Ceremonies along with Rihanna and Jay-Z. The weather has been fabulous the whole time we were here and Sunday night turned out to be the same which made way for an awesome light show and fireworks display. The Closing Ceremony also included a Handover to Rio 2016 and the extinguishing of the Paralympic Flame which signaled the end of the Games and the end of what turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life so far. Thanks to Matt, Sean, Keith, Tahl, Pam and my family for making the memories even more special, hope to travel to Rio with all of you in 2016.