CLEVELAND -- Olympian LeBron James announced he was coming home Friday, then flew to Brazil.
On Sunday, Paralympian Dartanyon Crockett actually came home, to the same town, with just as big a smile on his face.
Right beside Crockett was Tatyana McFadden, a 10-time Paralympic track medalist who calls Cleveland her second home, as the U.S. Paralympics Gateway to Gold tour stopped at Case Western Reserve in its ongoing outreach to potential future Paralympians.
|Tatyana McFadden speaks at the Gateway to Gold event on July 13, 2014 in Cleveland.
“It’s great to be able to give back. I was in the same situation as many of these kids, not knowing what I wanted to do, and being a little insecure,” said Crockett, a 2012 Paralympic judo bronze medalist. “Being an unknown, off-the-radar kid from Cleveland, to having people tell me how inspirational I am, it’s still hard for me to believe, because it's just me living my life. I’ve never thought of me being inspirational.”
That changed after Crockett moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center four years ago. Crockett grew up in the rough-and-tumble Kinsman neighborhood on Cleveland’s East side and had an unstable home life after his mother passed away when he was 8, and his father battled substance and alcohol addiction. Crockett is one of 12 children. He often couch-jumped, staying at the homes of friends and relatives throughout high school.
“It took a little bit of time, but I realized how powerful my story is, and how much people look up to me,” he said. “That gives me more drive to be better the next day than I was the day before.”
“When I did one of my first speaking engagements around 2011 (in Colorado Springs), one of the kids came up to me and said, ‘I think you’re so great. You’re my hero.’ The word ‘hero’ stuck. All my life, I was just a blind inner-city kid from Cleveland, just kind of struggling. This kid who I don't even know told me I'm a hero? I have my own idea of hero, and it wasn’t me.
“It just stuck, how influential something I thought was so small can be to someone else. That was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. It didn’t change me in how I live my life because I try to be myself, so I don’t have to be different around someone else. It gave me more of an outlook on what I want to do with my life.”
Reaching out to young adaptive sports athletes is part of his future plan. He and McFadden clearly reveled in doing so Sunday with the 36 athletes who attended the event. In addition to these elite athletes, Gateway to Gold associate sponsor BP and its local retailers also showed their support for the event by providing funding, snacks and volunteers to help out at the sport stations.
Besides frequently offering advice and pointers, McFadden and Crockett also had fun with the participants. Crockett playfully arm wrestled Elliott Prior of Amherst, Ohio, and Mia Lewis of Livonia, Michigan, while McFadden glided alongside wheelchair track athletes such as Kelli Anne Stallkamp of Lima, Ohio.
“Oh, my God, she has no idea how lucky she is,” said Stallkamp’s mother, Jeanna Stallkamp, wide-eyed as the scene unfolded.
Both with deep Cleveland roots, McFadden and Crockett were appropriate choices to set the tone throughout the day. McFadden’s mother, Debbie, is from the Cleveland suburb of Fairview Park. Tatyana’s sister, 2012 Paralympian Hannah McFadden, also helped coach the event Sunday. The three women spent part of their weekend with Debbie’s ailing father, John, the former president of power tool manufacturer MTD Products, based near Cleveland.
|A participant plays sitting volleyball at the Gateway to Gold event
on July 13, 2014 in Cleveland.
“All the people that are here today, I was in their same position, trying to figure out where I can get involved locally,” said Tatyana McFadden, a Paralympian in both track and cross-country skiing. “It all starts through the adaptive sports programs. The idea is to reach out to everyone, not just to the one who is going to be a Paralympian. It reaches out to one girl who just wants to stay active, and that's why this is so important.”
McFadden and Crockett were easily approachable throughout the five-hour event, and they appeared to take seriously their roles as instructors and mentors.
“They are so humble and so down-to-earth with these kids,” Jeanna Stallkamp said. “They want to teach.”
The day ended with McFadden and Crockett playfully racing each other on the indoor track. Crockett got smoked by McFadden, who last month added two world records to her long list of wheelchair track accomplishments that includes three Paralympic gold medals, 14 world championships and two Boston Marathon victories.
It was Crockett’s first time in a racing chair, and he got a rematch.
But as he did most of the day at every sport test, energetic 12-year-old double-amputee Theo Hardesty of Lima, Ohio, stole the show on his new running blades. The young sled hockey player jumped in at the start and ran past McFadden and Crockett, who coasted behind him. Hardesty grinned the entire 100 meters.
Hardesty stood out — not because he was different, but because he was having the most fun.
“They are at a place where they can feel accepted,” Crockett said. “They don’t have a title or condition added onto their name. They’re just people here, and that’s how it should be everywhere.”
Tim Warsinskey is a sports writer in Cleveland who has written extensively about the Olympics and Paralympics since 2006. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.