MINNEAPOLIS -- Two months ago, U.S. Paralympic sprinter Jarryd Wallace lit up the international stage, breaking teammate Richard Browne’s 100-meter T44 world record with a time of 10.71 at the Parapan American Games in Toronto.
He’s kept quite busy since then, between training for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, speaking engagements, proposing to his now-fiancée and being named a volunteer coach for the University of Georgia track and field team.
But last weekend, the Athens, Georgia, native could be found at the YWCA of Minneapolis, taking time out of his hectic schedule to invest in his sport’s grassroots efforts.
|(L-R) Jarryd Wallace and Rudy Garcia-Tolson speak to athletes at the Gateway to Gold event on Oct. 10, 2015 in Minneapolis.|
Wallace, along with two-time Paralympic champion swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson, served as an ambassador for a Gateway to Gold event, part of the U.S. Paralympics talent identification initiative that allows athletes to try Paralympic sports and connect with ongoing programs for further skill development.
“My desire is to see Paralympic sport continue to grow, and I think events like this are going to be a catalyst for that,” Wallace said. “It’s an atmosphere to inquire and ask questions.”
Gateway to Gold events are held in collaboration with Paralympic partner organizations and are sponsored by BP, which has contributed significant funding and support at the community level since the inception of the program in 2013.
The events are free and open to all youth, adults and veterans with a physical or visual impairment.
Minneapolis was one of four cities hosting Gateway to Gold this year — with the final event to be held Oct. 17 in Berkeley, California — and the participants could try out Nordic skiing, cycling and track and field exercises.
Twenty-one athletes participated, including one who drove from North Dakota for the event and another who lost his leg just three months ago.
“The first step is just being here,” Garcia-Tolson told participants at the event, which was held in conjunction with Sports Minneapolis.
Wallace and Garcia-Tolson had the chance to share their stories and serve as mentors, being easily approachable throughout the day, while local Paralympians Chuck Aoki (wheelchair rugby) and Paul Nitz (track and field) also dropped by to show their support.
“What’s cool is when you get those people at these events who have a disability but have always heard, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘You can’t do this well,’” Wallace said. “You start putting them through specific sport testing, though, and they start seeing how well-functioning they are. You then see this light bulb go off in their head.”
A light bulb certainly went off for Troy Benesh, who lives just down the street from the YWCA of Minneapolis.
|(L-R) Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Jarryd Wallace speak to athletes at the Gateway to Gold event on Oct. 10, 2015 in Minneapolis.
Prior to losing both his legs from an infection two years ago, Benesh had always led a very active lifestyle that included basketball, cycling, surfing, swimming and track and field. Since becoming a double-amputee, Benesh has constantly been searching for Paralympic athletes and competitions on YouTube, and in June he had the chance to attend the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I go online looking for people like me doing things — other bilateral below-the-knee amputees,” he said. “I ask, ‘What sports are they excelling in? And are those sports ones I’m interested in?’”
After two years of watching from the sidelines, he was tired of being a spectator and wanted to participate.
“I’d rather be outside playing and doing something than watching TV,” Benesh said. “You never know unless you try.”
Benesh, who also recently took up wheelchair basketball at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, tried out Nordic skiing cardio exercises at the Gateway to Gold event. In a matter of minutes, he’d found his new activity to keep himself busy during Minnesota’s snow-filled winters.
Wallace and Garcia-Tolson’s mission in Minneapolis was complete.
“Ultimately, I hope one day we can say we identified a future Paralympian at this event in Minneapolis,” said Scott Romane, Executive Director of Sports Minneapolis.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.