Olympic athlete Brady Ellison and Paralympic athlete Matt Stutzman demonstrate archery at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at Drake Field on March 8, 2016 in Westwood, California.
LOS ANGELES -- For Paralympic athletes like swimmer Jessica Long, seeing the logos for the Olympic team and Paralympic team side by side at the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles symbolizes how much their event has grown in awareness and stature.
“I remember the Media Summit in 2008 and kind of standing over in the corner and being afraid to talk to the Olympic athletes,” said Long, who has won 17 Paralympic medals – including 12 golds – since 2004. “I mean, I’m a good athlete, but they’re Olympians. I think what’s incredible is we’re at a point now where I know Michael Phelps. I know all of the Olympic athletes and we compete for one team. And that’s the way it should be. Just to see the changes … It’s so exciting. It’s just really grown and I love hearing that you don’t just say Olympics – it’s Olympics and Paralympics.”
Long, 24, competed in her first Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 when she was 12. She was born with fibular hemimelia, which affected her fibulas, ankles and heels. Her legs were amputated when she was 18 months old so she could learn to walk with prosthetics.
“As a 12-year-old, most people didn’t know what the Paralympics were,” said Long, who technically celebrated her sixth birthday this year since she was born on Leap Day – Feb. 29. “I had gone to Athens and I had come home with three gold medals, but people were still unaware. And then I think everyone’s helped that.”
She said athletes have pushed, sponsors have contributed support and the media has gotten the word out about athletes and their stories.
“When I was little, I remember talking to people and telling them, ‘I challenge you to just spread the word. Tell someone today who doesn’t know about the Paralympics,’” Long said. “I think people are going to be in for a really exciting shock come Rio, and it’s just going to grow more and more. I’m thankful that I haven’t retired yet – not that I’m planning to any time soon – but I have some friends who are already retired and I’m really glad I’ve held on so long to see the Paralympics become so great.”
NBC will show an unprecedented 66 hours of coverage from Rio. Said Long, “Telling my friends and family, ‘You can actually watch it live on TV’ is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Matt Stutzman, “the Armless Archer,” said the support of sponsors, who see Paralympians as a great fit for their companies, has been “a huge blessing for all of us. We’re seeing a lot more sponsors now jump on board and want to help grow the sport as we do.”
Long jumper Lex Gillette, who went blind at age 8 because of retinal detachments, said the Paralympic Games have increased in diversity. When he began training and competing, he recalled thinking, “I really don’t see too many blind athletes, pun intended. There has to be a way we can break into that realm also.”
Gillette won silver medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012 and wants to continue to build on the “growth in understanding and awareness across platforms from a sponsorship standpoint.”
In 2007, Richard Browne slipped and fell through the glass window of a Laundromat during a thunderstorm, forcing the amputation of his leg below the knee.
Now the world champion and world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter, Browne said athletes have been “literally changing the perception of what disability is.”
The United States Olympic Committee created a Paralympic division in 2001 and enhanced the relationship 10 years later when it went through governance reform.
“People ask about the growth in the United States and I’ve always said it’s about leadership and organizational stability,” said Charlie Huebner, vice president, Paralympic development for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.
A record 16 Paralympic athletes were invited to this week’s Team USA Media Summit.
Sprinter Jarryd Wallace said Paralympians are grateful for the support of the USOC.
“Just as an Olympic athlete trains day in and day out, we train day in and day out,” said Wallace, whose leg was amputated due to complications from compartment syndrome. “We’re the best in the world in what we do; the sole difference is we have physical impairments.”
“We don’t want to be looked at as disabled people; we’re athletes first,” added wheelchair basketball standout Trevon Jenifer, who was born without legs as a result of congenital amputation. “We’re trying to get away from the misconception that we do this as hobbies. We do this as a lifestyle. We train as hard as our counterparts in the Olympics and we want people to see our efforts.”
Thanks to the increasing level of awareness and commitment, more people will see those efforts than ever before.