PARK CITY, Utah – With media from around the world assembled in Park City for the Team USA Media Summit, it was perhaps fitting that one metric of success of the Paralympic Movement was coverage.
While the Paralympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 was less than eight years ago, snowboarder Amy Purdy recalled how far the movement has come since then.
“I remember trying to watch the Vancouver Games and I didn’t know how,” Purdy, a 2014 bronze medalist, said. “Now it’s on TV and hopefully that gets bigger and better.”
Purdy, of course, has contributed to that growth and popularity herself, becoming one of Team USA’s biggest stars through her work as a motivational speaker, author and even reality TV star. Purdy has competed on “The Amazing Race” and, more recently, finished second on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“It’s really cool to be a part of this movement and be able to share this movement with so many people who maybe didn’t know what the Paralympics were beforehand,” Purdy said. “When I danced (at the Opening Ceremony) in Rio and I posted about it on social, so many people said, ‘I wouldn’t have watched this if you didn’t post about it.’ It’s cool to see that people are interested and it’s just a matter of putting it out there and have the media represent it properly.”
Other athletes echoed similar experiences getting their sport represented in the public consciousness. Sled hockey goalie Steve Cash is a three-time Paralympian who has seen his sport grow tremendously since his first Games in 2006. That includes no longer having to field questions about what sled hockey even is.
“My first Paralympics, when I was in an interview, I was getting the question, ‘Could you explain to the folks at home what sled hockey is?’ And I’m like, we’re at the Paralympic Games and you want me to explain what this sport is?” Cash recalled. “And now we’re getting questions that have evolved into, ‘What’s the competition like? How far have the sleds come since 2006?’”
Teammate Josh Pauls, a two-time Paralympian, echoed seeing signs of the sport’s growth.
“It’s really exciting to see how far it’s come,” Pauls said. “I’ll be at the grocery store and I’ll hear, ‘Hey you’re that sled hockey guy, aren’t you?’”
Pauls also recalled how sled hockey games are now broadcast live on TV, where in past the Paralympic Games have sometimes aired on tape delay, when at all. Snowboarder Evan Strong said that NBC’s live broadcasts have been “huge” for the Games.
“For a lot of Americans, they didn’t even know there was such thing as the Paralympics,” Strong, a Paralympic champion, said. “And now it’s this huge thing.”
Strong and Purdy also pointed to the contributions of Team USA sponsors, whose support has not only helped promote the Games but also helps athletes be more successful.
“(Sponsors support) Paralympians like Olympians, and really supporting advertising and putting us out there, it’s like the movement is bigger than ever.”
The Paralympic Games themselves will be bigger and better in PyeongChang. As many as 670 athletes will be competing, a 24 percent increase from Sochi. Included in that is a 44 percent increase in female athletes.
As far as ways to grow the Paralympic Games even further, athletes speculated on moving the Games, either to be closer or further apart from the Olympic Games.
“The ideal situation would be to have it during the Olympic Games,” Purdy said. “We wouldn’t have to educate people as much.”
Strong noted that having both at once would be a great celebration of all athletes.
“It’d be really cool if the Paralympics happened during the Olympics,” Strong said. “It’s the same spirit but let’s all have a big party.”
But snowboarder Mike Schultz also acknowledged the logistical challenges of hosting simultaneous Games, saying, “Having it at the same time would be extremely tough,” while noting, “Maybe bringing it a little closer or farther apart would help.”
Whether the Paralympic Games ever change from their current schedule following closely after the Olympic Games remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. The excitement of the athletes, fans, broadcasters and sponsors is as high as it has ever been.
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.