Candace Cable competing in the 10K sitski event at the Paralympic Games Salt Lake 2002 on March 15, 2002 in Heber, Utah.
Candace Cable made a name for herself over the course of her 27-year athletic career, winning a dozen medals at nine different Paralympic Games — four summer, five winter. But for the Southern California native, the hardware has always been secondary to a larger purpose.
To this day Cable uses her platform to break down the myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities and prove that no matter what happens in life, there are always options. And as a class of 2019 inductee into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, she will continue to deliver her message.
“Sport is one of those places where we can come together and dismantle these false ideas that people have about what it is to be a full human being, and it’s really cool,” she said. “I feel really honored and lucky and blessed to have come into this life and to get an accolade like this, although I still don’t even really know what this means. There’s part of me that’s going, ‘What do I have to do now?’ I guess I’ve got to find fancy clothing.”
Playing sports never interested Cable as a child. She loved being outside, she says, but did her best to avoid activity in gym class and anything else that involved confrontation or competition. She enjoyed watching sports, however, and even served as timekeeper and stat keeper for the basketball and wrestling teams in school because she loved the social element of the games.
After a car accident and resulting spinal cord injury in 1975 at the age of 21, however, Cable found that adaptive sports gave her an opportunity to be part of a community and feel included again. She started with swimming at Long Beach State, but when track coach Barbara Chambers saw Cable trying out a racing chair, she knew she had a budding speedster on her hands.
“I told her, ‘I think you’re not a swimmer. You’re a track athlete,’” Chambers said. “That’s how it started, and within a couple weeks she’d moved. She was in Southern California and I was in Cupertino at De Anza College training teams for the Paralympics and she came and trained with us. I started telling people, ‘You’ve got to watch her because she’s going to be a star.’”
Things were much different then for athletes with disabilities. The chairs themselves were horribly heavy, not dissimilar to hospital chairs, and nowhere near as maneuverable as today’s racing chairs. When athletes went to road races they often had to advise race directors on how to have a wheelchair division because the concept was still so new.
And when Cable made her Paralympic debut in 1980, the Games were held in the Netherlands because Moscow hosted that year’s Olympic Games but the Soviet government refused to also host the Paralympics because, according to them, they had no people with disabilities in the USSR.
It was there in Arnhem, Netherlands, in front of crowds of just a few hundred people, Cable said, that she won her first three Paralympic medals: gold in the 200- and 400-meter and silver in the 4x60-meter.
In 1988, she won an additional five gold medals (800, 1,500, marathon, 4x200, 4x400), and in 1992 she added another gold in the 4x100. Earlier that year she had also become the first American woman to win medals in both the summer and winter editions of the Paralympic Games, as she had also transitioned to alpine skiing, competing in the LW10-11 category, and won a Paralympic silver medal in slalom and bronzes in downhill and giant slalom.
She’d go on to compete in one more Summer Games in 1996 and four more Winter Games, through 2006, all four for Nordic skiing, for a total of nine Games.
Chambers said that Cable’s willingness to try new things and her positive attitude helped make her such a success, whether on the track or on the snow.
“She was always open to ideas,” said Chambers, who still considers Cable among her closest friends. “She’s a very free spirit and a free thinker and she’ll try anything. She’s very adventurous as far as trying different methods and different activities.”
Even later in life, Cable said, as she was collecting medals on a regular basis at races all over the world, the results weren’t the things that drove her.
“(It was about) the community experience, about me testing myself to be a better me and facing my fears and seeing what happens,” she said. “I have this insatiable curiosity about life, and I have had a life of satisfying so much of my curiosity that sport really gave me the opportunity to do. Until the day I die I’ll talk about sport and all of the pieces that it brings together to truly give people the skills to have a well-lived life.”
Of all her trips to the Games, the one thing that stands out as a difference maker, Cable said, was competing at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles with wheelchair racing as an exhibition sport.
“That was the first time that Paralympic sport was seen on multiple levels,” she said. “It was the first time that we were in a stadium that was packed with 80,000 people. I’d never been in front of that many people in my life. It was broadcast globally, and they did interviews with some of the athletes, and I was one of them, for the up-close-and-personals. There were articles in magazines and newspapers, which we fought tooth and nail to be in the newspapers and trying to get the media to pay attention to us in wheelchair racing.”
It felt, she said, like there was a real shift in consciousness happening globally around Paralympic athletes.
Years later, Cable was tapped to be part of the committee working to bring the Olympic and Paralympic Games to Los Angeles in 2024 (the city instead won hosting rights for 2028) and in a full-circle moment, she said, she stood next to Carl Lewis as the committee presented its bid for approval by the Los Angeles City Council on the same date on which they both competed in Los Angeles in 1984.
“This was a place where the heavens converged and we had a lot of spectacular experiences that at the time were very inclusive because there were so many people coming together,” Cable said. “To be able to talk about that during the council meeting and then get the unanimous vote to support our bid, was really exciting.”
Cable won a bronze medal that day in 1984. But at that moment, she said, she felt she’d failed. When her ecstatic family joined her and her disappointment was evident, her father helped put things in perspective.
“He said, ‘You were just in an event that only eight people in the world were in and you won a medal, and it was an event that people worldwide watched,’” said Cable, who also competed in Olympic exhibition events in 1988 and 1992. “He said, ‘You choose right now whether you’re victorious or you’re a failure. This is your choice.’”
Cable didn’t fully grasp what that meant in the moment, she said, but it would come to shape how she viewed more than just sports. And she’s still learning how that moment in 1984 shaped others, as well.
“I’m still meeting people who have disabilities who were little kids watching TV, growing up with spina bifida or cerebral palsy watching the Olympics that day when wheelchair racing came on and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do that,’” she said. “A couple years ago I had a guy come up to me and say, ‘I’m so excited to meet you because you changed my life, seeing that on television,’ and that’s the power of sport."