After splitting his time between coaching and college, two-time Olympic snowboarder Graham Watanabe told himself he was ready to commit to school full-time.
There was one “unless,” however.
He was ready to commit to school full-time, unless he ever had an opportunity to coach Paralympians.
“I’d seen those guys at Sochi and had the chance to meet a few at the X Games, and I saw immense potential for that program,” he said. “I just thought in the back of my head that I could do cool things with that, but I left it at that and went back to school.”
Fast forward a few seasons, and the Paralympics did come calling. This season Watanabe became an assistant coach under the new U.S. Paralympics Snowboard program coach Patrick Holland.
Although it’s still early into Watanabe’s tenure, he said that so far it’s been challenging, exciting and educational, in addition to very successful.
“It’s been really cool,” he said. “It’s a super strong program already and I just still see that potential for amazing gains and the opportunity to create a true legacy. I think these guys are poised to create a program that will have lasting success.”
Watanabe competed in snowboardcross in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and his experience has helped him transition to coaching Paralympians in a number of ways. First, he said, having been an elite athlete himself gave him an inherent respect coming into the job.
“They know I’ve been through a certain amount of things,” he said. “Not that our paths will be identical, but I know the challenges elite athletes experience and they know I’ve had those experiences, so we can relate on a different level that some other coaches may not be able to.”
Having been a part of the able-bodied program for so long and knowing what worked and what didn’t has also helped his approach to the adaptive team, Watanabe said. One of the unique challenges he’s experienced early on has been finding ways to take his technical and analytical coaching style and apply it to the positions and dynamics of riders with prosthetics, but Watanabe emphasized that the physical differences with the athletes he now coaches are not roadblocks.
“We might have to change what I would consider the ideal body position slightly, but I don’t believe we can’t achieve the same result as far as riding technique,” he said.
Here’s a look at five other Olympians who are now making their mark in the Paralympic Movement:
Joaquim Cruz, U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Resident Coach
Cruz first got involved with the Paralympic track and field program in 2005, following his own long and distinguished career. Competing for Brazil, Cruz was the gold medalist in the 800-meter at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games and silver medalist in the same event four years later in Seoul. He returned to the Games for a third time in 1996, served as flag bearer for Brazil and competed in the 1,500-meter. Cruz started in a consulting role coaching for Team USA, but that rapidly became a full-time position, and Cruz went on to coach Paralympic track and field athletes at each of the past three Paralympic Games. In Rio, his star athlete David Brown, a visually impaired sprinter, set a Paralympic record while winning the 100-meter T11 event that had long been dominated by Brazilians. In his current role, Cruz runs the track and field resident program at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site in Chula Vista, California, coaching those in the program as well as those who come for training camps and other sessions. In addition to coaching adaptive athletes, Cruz, who ran at Oregon, also identifies potential recruits for the U.S. program.
Tom Darling, USRowing Director of Para-Rowing
Darling, who won silver in the men’s eight at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, has worked with adaptive rowing for more than seven years. Before he was named as the Director of Para-Rowing for USRowing in 2013, he worked with the Veteran’s Administration, Sapulding Rehabilitation Hospital and at companies that manufacture adaptive rowing equipment. Under Darling’s direction, USRowing brought home a silver medal in the LTA 4+ event at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Darling has said, “The most common misconceptions about adaptive rowing is that it’s dangerous, that the athletes need a lot of help, and they need specialized equipment…Adaptive rowers are strong, fit individuals who are no more prone to danger, or in need of assistance, than any other athlete.”
John Farra, U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing High Performance Director
Farra was a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1990-93, a U.S. champion and a member of the Olympic cross-country team in 1992, when he finished 60th in the 10-kilometer and 49th in the 10/15K pursuit. After graduating from Utah in 1995 he became the school’s cross-country coach and then went on to the National Sports Academy at Lake Placid, New York. After a stop as vice president at the Maine Winter Sports Center, he was named the Nordic director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in 2008, heading the cross-country, Nordic combined and ski jumping programs. Under Farra, U.S. athletes won six world championships and four Olympic medals. In 2011, he was named the first high performance director for the U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing program. The United States sent 18 athletes to the 2014 Paralympics in Nordic skiing, up from six in 2010, and Oksana Masters and Tatyana McFadden won a combined three medals in cross-country skiing, the first for U.S. women in the sport since 1994. Farra has said he hopes to send 30 athletes, the maximum, to PyeongChang in 2018 and compete with powerhouses Russia and Ukraine.
Eddie Liddie, USA Judo Director of High Performance
A USA Judo Hall of Famer, Liddie won an Olympic bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games before taking athletes to the 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 Games as a coach. For his role working with Paralympic athletes, Liddie in 2013 was a finalist for the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Coach of the Year award following Team USA’s performance in London in 2012. Three of the five Paralympic judo team members, including silver medalist Myles Porter and bronze medalist Dartanyon Crockett, trained under Liddie at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 2016, U.S. athletes Christella Garcia and Crockett both won bronze medals.
Erica Wheeler, U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team Coach
A 1996 U.S. Olympian in javelin, Wheeler has since transitioned into coaching Paralympic athletes in the same event. Over nearly two decades competing in javelin, Wheeler was the 2003 U.S. outdoor champion and a two-time U.S. runner-up, as well as a junior U.S. champion. She competed in the world championships in 1997. Wheeler has coached able-bodied javelin at Chico State, as well as Paralympic athletes including Rachel Morrison, who set a world record in 2014.