Paralympians Raise Awareness Of Paralympic Movement At 26th Annual USOC FLAME Program

By Melissa Zhang | June 04, 2019, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Participants of the 2019 FLAME program listened to a number of Paralympians speak, including Chuck Aoki, Lex Gillette and Oz Sanchez.

The U.S. Olympic Committee hosted the 26th annual FLAME (Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere) Program from May 27 to June 3, with 30 student leaders chosen from colleges and universities across the nation to participate in an eight-day program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In addition to seminars and professional development workshops, FLAME participants also heard from a number of Team USA athletes and sports administrators, as they discussed topics such as athlete wellness and support, supporting LGBTQ+ athletes and elevating athlete voices.

FLAME’s speaker program featured several Paralympians who shared their life experiences and spread awareness about the Paralympic Movement.

“I hoped to share the message of how important it is to consider disability when creating diverse and inclusive programming,” said two-time wheelchair rugby Paralympian Chuck Aoki, who spoke on Saturday, June 1 during the “Elevate Athlete Voices” panel.

“Disability cuts across all of our traditional social lines in society and can affect anyone at any time. It is critical to view persons with disabilities as assets, not burdens. Creating an accessible society brings a unique chance for innovation that should be embraced.” 

Paralympians included Aoki, judo athlete Dartanyon Crockett, track and field athlete Scout Bassett, alpine skier and cyclist Allison Jones, track and field athlete Lex Gillette and cyclist Oz Sanchez.

“Through programs like these, we can help grow that awareness and spread of information. By educating the public at large, we create more opportunities and make our platform larger,” Sanchez said. “When I became injured, I wasn't aware of Paralympic sport, but after immersing myself into cycling, the impact of sport has permeated and trickled into every area of my life.”

FLAME participants also had the opportunity to dive deeper into Paralympic sport through demonstrations, including wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, Paralympic shooting and goalball. In wheelchair basketball, students played against three-time Paralympic medalist Matt Scott who led the demonstration as a veteran of the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team.

Sanchez and Bassett sat on the “Athlete Wellness and Support” panel held on Thursday, May 30, along with USA Boxing’s director of grassroots development and scouting, Suzy Sanchez, and Tina Sloan Green, the president and co-founder of the Black Women in Sports Foundation.

Each panelist imparted words of wisdom to the students at the end of the discussion, including Bassett’s advice to “never attach your worth and value to a person, place, or organization;  instead, attach your worth to a cause, purpose, or calling.”

Jones, an eight-time Paralympic medalist in cycling and alpine skiing, spoke on the “LGBTQ+ Leaders in Sport” panel held on Friday, May 31. Along with four-time Olympic ice hockey medalist Julie Chu, former U.S. Men’s National Gymnastics Team member Josh Dixon and transgender professional boxer Pat Manuel, Jones discussed the challenges she has faced as both an athlete and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Crockett and Gillette spoke individually as keynote speakers on the third and fourth days of the program. Gillette, a track and field athlete who is visually impaired, has won four Paralympic medals across four Paralympic Games. He shared his journey to Paralympic sport with the students, which started when a teacher reached out to him in high school.

“This FLAME program engulfs the students in our world in many ways, so having Paralympians from an assortment of different sports here really gives them a diverse learning experience,” Gillette said. “The Paralympics doesn’t necessarily have the same visibility as the Olympics, but if we can reach out to as many people as possible, that helps get more people involved. With the Paralympic Games Los Angeles 2028 coming up in the long run, building a larger contingent of athletes and supporters is huge.”

2019 marks the 26th edition of the FLAME program, which is designed to inspire students of color to pursue careers in sport, specifically within the Olympic and Paralympic movements. Selected participants have demonstrated a pursuit of excellence, both in and out of the classroom.

“It’s incredibly important to speak to future generations of leaders, like the college students who participate in FLAME, because of the impact that diverse voices can have on their career choices,” Aoki said. “Paralympians, and people with disabilities in general, have powerful voices and as we strive to create a better and more inclusive world, we need to ensure that disability is properly included in those conversations. Speaking to students preparing to enter the workforce helps to ensure that they are thinking about these issues as they become leaders.”