By Doug Williams | Nov. 17, 2014, 2 p.m. (ET)
Sir Philip Craven
International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven addresses the crowd at the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. He spoke Friday in San Diego at the annual assembly of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

SAN DIEGO — Leave it to Sir Philip Craven to know his audience.

The president of the International Paralympic Committee had been invited to speak at the annual assembly of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Friday. Originally, he planned to speak about the future of the Paralympic Movement.

“Then I had a thought a week ago,” he told the assembled doctors and rehabilitation experts in a large meeting room at the San Diego Convention Center. “Let’s change it. ‘Sport for All. Sport in Rehabilitation.’ That’s what you’re all involved with.”

Because while Craven’s platform is the IPC and the Paralympic Movement, he knows the worth of that movement extends far beyond gold medals and international competition.

It’s rooted in what sports can do not just for an elite athlete but anyone dealing with a physical challenge. It’s what he calls “sport for everybody.”

Craven, 64, used himself as an example, noting he’s been in a wheelchair 47 years. After suffering a back injury in a rock climbing accident that left him without the use of his legs, he became an outstanding wheelchair basketball player and swimmer. He represented Great Britain at five Paralympic Games.

He told his audience Friday that sports gave him a path to physical and emotional health.

Now recently elected to his fourth term as head of the IPC, he’s determined that the Paralympic Movement should be a broad and grassroots push to help as many people as possible through sports. He told the rehabilitation physicians and experts in attendance that they can make it happen.

“What an incredible responsibility and opportunity all of you have within your own habits to really make a difference and to change things,” he said. “I believe that your role is to help an individual to get back to where they were before a major interruption occurred in their lives, and even for them to go further in the future.”

Craven likened the body to a mechanical object, such as a car, that needs to be fixed when it’s damaged.

“But I have to ask the question,” he said. “Where’s the driver? And that’s where you come in.”

By exuding a positive attitude and introducing exercise and sports early to patients, medical and rehab professionals can help them lead “a full and active life.” Craven says “pleasurable” exercise can be key to faster progress.

He cited his own case, saying when he was finally ready to get into a wheelchair, doctors gave him drills and sent him to a gym to have him start learning about balance.

“Just off to my left was a table tennis table, where I could have just played table tennis and automatically I would have been using my body for balance, for compensation techniques in the wheelchair,” he said.

Craven’s point was reinforced later when, during a question-and-answer session, Andy Cohn — a three-time U.S. Paralympian in wheelchair rugby who lives in San Diego — added his own story. He said he suffered a broken neck while a passenger in a car accident and “really struggled with my disability.”

“I was in a lot of physical therapy, struggled in some mental therapy, seeing a psychiatrist, trying to deal with depression,” he said. “I went to one wheelchair rugby practice and I canceled all my therapies. That’s all I needed. It honestly saved my life.”

“Power of Paralympic Sport”

Craven’s presentation Friday lasted about an hour and included input from Dr. Cheri Blauwet, a former Paralympic wheelchair racer and physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She introduced Craven and credited him with being a “friend and a mentor” through the years.

She also said his work has “truly brought about a movement to bring attention to sports fans across the globe of the power of Paralympic sport.”

Craven certainly presented that message again Friday.

He showed short films highlighting the athletic achievements at the 2012 London and 2014 Sochi Games, cited the tremendous fan support and attention achieved in London and described the growth of the Paralympic Games.

He also presented the three strategic goals of the IPC: 1) to maintain the standard while continuing to improve the Paralympic Games; 2) to foster athletic development from the grassroots level across the globe; 3) to strive for constant improvement in the standard of all events between Games.

But the key message he wanted health professionals to know about Friday is all the physical and emotional benefits for patients through activity.

Craven said sport is about human interaction — something that’s often missing when someone has experienced a major accident or illness. Through sports — which he calls “life’s great educator” — those patients suddenly are thrust back into the world. Once they begin training and competing, sports becomes a powerful force for self-esteem, joy, health and regaining a sense of control.

Craven then flashed to a photo of British sprinter Jonnie Peacock, a 100-meter sprint champion at the London Games, on two big screens behind him. He noted Peacock’s obvious delight. Sports, after all, involve games. And games are fun and joy is therapeutic and makes life worthwhile for anyone, whether able-bodied or not.

“For me,” said Craven, “having fun is the biggest benefit for starting to practice sport.”

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 since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.