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Seven Team USA Trailblazers Who Are Changing The Paralympic Game & Advocating For Those With Disabilities

By Joshua Clayton & Sheridan Powell | Dec. 03, 2020, 10:45 a.m. (ET)

First created in 1992 by the United Nations, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a day dedicated to promoting the rights and well-being of those with disabilities in all different spheres of society.

Today we highlight members of Team USA who have made strides towards a more visible and accessible Paralympic landscape – breaking barriers, founding organizations and more.

U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee Candace Cable speaks during the Class of 2019 Induction Ceremony on Nov. 1, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Candace Cable, Para Track and Field, Para Nordic Skiing 

Cable found solace in adaptive sports after a spinal cord injury from a car accident in 1975. After her accident, she found the adaptive sports community in California and began traveling the country to meet with race directors, advocating for wheelchair racing and adaptive events in competitions.

“We knew we wanted to be in those road races, but we also knew we needed to set something for future generations to be included, not have to do this piece, but do the other pieces that come from creating that piece,” she said. 

Cable made her Paralympic debut in 1980, when the Paralympic Games were held in the Netherlands, despite the Olympic Games being held in Russia. The Soviet government refused to host the Paralympic Games, claiming the USSR had no people with disabilities. Cable won her first three medals there, launching what would be a 27-year career. 

Cable witnessed the growth and the evolution of the Paralympic Games, competing at nine total Games – both summer and winter. To her, the Games that stood out were the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which featured 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.”  

Even into retirement, Cable continues to work to give athletes with disabilities more opportunities and fights against ableism and racism. As a 2019 inductee into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, she uses her platform and experience to continue to drive change. 

Ezra Frech competes during the Men's High Jump T63 Final at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on Nov.14, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 

Ezra Frech, Para Track and Field 

Frech has been active in every sport imaginable, but he knew he wanted to make his mark in track and field after watching the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. Born with congenital limb differences, Frech got his first prosthetic leg at 11 months old and hit the ground running.

When Frech was eight years old competing at the Endeavor Games, his father Clayton had an idea to create a space for athletes to learn more about adaptive sports.

The Angel City Games launched in 2015 with a mission to provide opportunities for athletes of all ages and abilities to compete. Now 15, Ezra is training for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, as the youngest member of the team, while working with Angel City.

“It’s difficult to balance and there’s been a lot of late nights doing homework, but at the end of the day there’s nothing I would rather be doing,” he said.  

Brenna Huckaby during the Women's Banked Slalom SB-LL1 at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 16, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. 

Brenna Huckaby, Para Snowboarding 

In 2015, Brenna Huckaby earned her first World Championship medal. Just two short years later – and after the birth of her first child – she burst onto the scene at the 2017 World Championships.

Huckaby has a few different “firsts” next to her name in the Paralympic world. Her first two gold medals at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 were the first won by an American woman in Para snowboarding. 

Later that year, Huckaby received an invite to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Her acceptance would make her the first Paralympic athlete to be featured in the iconic magazine. She admitted that when she first received the offer, she was nervous.

“I really got to thinking about the future and how underrepresented women with disabilities and Paralympians are and it was like – of course I’m going to do this.” 

Huckaby now turns to social media to continue to advocate for disability rights – discussing things like how to ask questions, feeling comfortable in your own skin and more. She’s even gone on to model and advocate for activewear made for all body types. 

Tatyana McFadden wins the women's 400 meter T54 final at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Tatyana McFadden, Para Track and Field 

A five-time Paralympian on the track, Tatyana McFadden has more than 15 Paralympic medals to her name and has more than made her mark on the Paralympic world.

But her off-the-track accomplishments have arguably been more impactful in the world of adaptive sports. McFadden was born in Russia and lived in an orphanage in St. Petersburg until the age of six, when she was adopted and moved to the United States. Born with spina bifida that left her paralyzed below the waist, McFadden became active in just about every sport she could find. 

At just 15, McFadden made her Paralympic debut in Athens in 2004, earning two medals on the track as the youngest member of Team USA. She returned home with plans to join her high school’s track team, but was told due to health and safety reasons, she wouldn’t be allowed to join the club.

Her family filed a lawsuit against the school – seeking no damages, only equal opportunity. They won both the county case and a similar battle with the state of Maryland. But that wasn’t quite enough.

McFadden and her mother worked tirelessly to get the Sports and Fitness Equity Act, also known as Tatyana’s Law, passed into federal law, allowing individuals with disabilities to participate in school sports. 

WSF President-elect Alana Nichols and President Elana Meyers Taylor speak during The Women in Sports Foundation 40th Annual Salute to Women in Sports Awards Gala on Oct. 16, 2019 in New York City.

Alana Nichols, Para Alpine Skiing, Paracanoe and Wheelchair Basketball 

A five-time Paralympian, Nichols earned medals at both the summer and winter Paralympic Games. Nichols made the decision to hang up her skis following a crash during a training run just before the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, but she has in no way slowed down.

After serving on the board for the Women’s Sports Foundation for six years, Nichols was promoted to the organization’s president earlier this year. The WSF, founded by tennis icon Billie Jean King, works to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity. As just the second Paralympian to hold the WSF presidential role, Nichols has already begun her work dedicated to reversing the high dropout rate for young women in sports.

On top of her work with the WSF, Nichols has her hands full raising her son, Gunner and remaining active. 

“He doesn’t have to be an athlete,” she joked, “but he’s already showing signs of athleticism. Every mom says this, but he really is advanced.” 

Nichols has continued to satisfy her competitive side by competing in surfing competitions, and has become a strong advocate to add surfing to the program for the Paralympic Games Los Angeles 2028.  

Amy Purdy celebrates during the medal ceremony for the Women's Snowboard Banked Slalom SB-LL1 Final at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 16, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. 

Amy Purdy, Para Snowboarding 

Amy and her husband Daniel Gale co-founded Adaptive Action Sports in 2005 looking to provide sporting opportunities for people with physical disabilities. AAS has assisted many Paralympians since snowboarding was added to the Paralympics and even helped lead an initiative to get adaptive skateboard into the X Games.

Now with the rise of competitive gaming, Purdy and Gale are working to put together an adaptive esports league for a wide range of disabilities.

Off the slopes, Purdy appeared on season 18 of Dancing With the Stars, making her the first double amputee contestant to ever appear on the show. Purdy and her partner Derek Hough finished the season in second place. 

Marla Runyan runs around the track in the 1500 meter race during the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 28, 2000 in Sydney.

Marla Runyan, Track and Field, Para Track and Field 

Runyan qualified for her first Paralympic Games in 1992 and brought home four gold medals from Barcelona. After another impressive performance at the Paralympics Games Atlanta 1996, she went on to pursue qualification for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team, even as Stargardt Disease caused her to slowly lose her sight. 

Runyan became the only ambulatory athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Paralympic athletes don’t want you to see and focus on the fact that they just happen to have an impairment,” she said. “They want you to see who they are as athletes.”

Since retiring from competition in 2006, she returned to school to earn a master's degree, worked at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and advocated for legislation for digital accessibility. She also still has her hand in sports, serving as the Paralympic athlete manager for the Boston Marathon. 

Related Athletes

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Ezra Frech

Track and Field
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Brenna Huckaby

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Tatyana McFadden

Nordic Skiing
US Paralympics
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Alana Nichols

Alpine Skiing
Wheelchair Basketball
US Paralympics
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Amy Purdy

US Paralympics
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Marla Runyan