Paralympic swimming hopeful Tharon Drake flew back to Hobbs, New Mexico, last weekend to give back to the youth in his hometown as a part of the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program.
Meeting with the Boys & Girls Club of Hobbs, he shared his journey from losing his eyesight in 2008 to becoming a world championships medalist in 2015, all the while embracing his role as a Team for Tomorrow athlete ambassador by spreading awareness about the importance of living a healthy and active lifestyle, and leading the way through volunteerism and goodwill.
“I could see the impact almost immediately, which was like a breath of fresh air,” Drake said. “I could just hear it in the kids’ voices when they went, ‘Wow. What do you mean you’re living at the Olympic Training Center? You’re not working in the oil field business? You’re not living in Hobbs?’
“It was cool to see that someone from their hometown made it — that someone was able to do something more than what’s always expected, which in our town is to work in the oil business.”
Team for Tomorrow athlete ambassadors serve as philanthropic representatives of the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, sharing their inspirational stories with youth and trying to build healthy societies for the future. The community outreach program, launched in 2008, has featured 59 athlete ambassadors who have volunteered more than 500 hours, with 15 U.S athletes leading the charge in 2016.
“We can’t live without our future, and Team for Tomorrow is helping our future athletes and even those futures of kids who aren’t going to be athletes,” Drake said. “That’s how we all get by, preparing for our future by instilling good values in children.”
Team for Tomorrow works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the YMCA — both multi-sport organizations within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic families — and other local organizations to coordinate athlete visits.
It was a no-brainer for Drake to want to bring this program to his hometown when he was chosen as one of the athlete ambassadors for 2016.
“There’s all sorts of statistics in Hobbs about high teen pregnancy and drug use all throughout our community of being one of the highest per capita, so I thought if there’s any place I want to help, it’s my hometown,” Drake said. “It’s somewhere that doesn’t get attention, but it’s somewhere that means a lot to me.”
In addition to emphasizing a healthy lifestyle, Drake taught nearly 100 kids how to play goalball. Most of the kids had never heard of the Paralympic sport before but were eager to start a league of their own as soon as they left the gym.
Paralympian Hannah McFadden, another Team for Tomorrow ambassador, visited Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club in Champaign, Illinois, last weekend, also sharing her story of determination and commitment to earning a spot on the Rio 2016 Paralympic team.
The reigning world bronze medalist in the 100- and 200-meter T54 sprints and younger sister of Paralympian Tatyana McFadden was able to give back to a community that’s home to a designated U.S. Paralympic Training Site at the University of Illinois.
“Champaign isn’t as much on the radar as some larger cities, so it was great to be able to donate all those resources and give back to the community that I’m living and training in,” she said. “The common goal among all these Team for Tomorrow events are to get kids healthy, active and fit to exercise.”
McFadden spoke to members of the club about the importance of an active and healthy lifestyle, and also explained the difference between the Olympic and Paralympic Games, even taking off her prosthetic leg and passing it around at times.
Following her presentation, McFadden led participants in an obstacle course, challenging them to envision themselves as an athlete with a disability by doing the course on one leg or blindfolded.
At both Team for Tomorrow events last weekend, U.S. Paralympics donated sport equipment packages to the local clubs on behalf of the program. Since Team for Tomorrow began, more than $200,000 in sporting goods has been donated to local clubs, schools and organizations.
Both Drake and McFadden will now shift their attention to the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, which will take place for both swimming and track and field June 30-July 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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.