Amanda McGrory competes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)
In early June, Amanda McGrory went to a track meet in Colorado. At the event, she met a young boy, aged 6 or 7, who wanted to see wheelchair racing in person, and potentially hop in a racer for himself.
The boy had seen McGrory’s racer from the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 on display in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum (USOPM), and he saw a video of her races at Rio 2016, which is played on loop in the USOPM, as well. But the boy did not know the athlete he met in person at the track meet was the same one enshrined in the museum.
“He had no idea it was me specifically,” McGrory said. “His mom was telling me they saw the chair, they watched the video, and they wanted to see the race. I was like, ‘Well, do I have some news for you.’”
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum is one of the newest manifestations of the growth in popularity of the Paralympic Movement. The museum prides itself on giving the same attention to the Paralympic Games and Paralympians as their Olympic counterparts.
McGrory’s chair is one of three on display, along with Tatyana McFadden’s first racing chair and one of Jean Driscoll’s racers. The museum places these storied athletes next to stars like Jesse Owens and Michael Phelps, and visitors can try sports, like sled hockey, for themselves in simulations.
Michelle Dusserre Farrell is a former U.S. gymnast who won a team all-around silver in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She now serves as the vice president of athlete engagement at the museum. Dusserre Farrell said it was a “no brainer” to place Olympians in the same light as Paralympians.
“Sport is really the vehicle to deliver a bigger message, cause, focus, and I feel like the museum does that,” she said. “We’re celebrating and honoring the history of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movements, the values and ideals of both movements.”
Dusserre Farrell’s daughter, Abby, has spina bifida, and competes in wheelchair basketball. Michelle said Abby’s use of a wheelchair opened her eyes to barriers people with disabilities often face in the world, and Michelle, coupled with feedback from Abby, helped fund and advocate for what she believes to be the first “universally accessible” playground in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2010.
Michelle got involved in the early conversations about the design of the museum in 2015. She and an equal number of Olympians and Paralympians met with the designers to better understand the Olympic and Paralympic Movements. The designers, Michelle said, were new to the movements.
“It really started with meetings where we would sit down and just share stories,” Michelle said.
That meeting and those that followed often revolved around three themes: the athletes’ journeys of making Team USA, the defining moment that inspired an individual to chase Olympic and Paralympic success and the meaning of the Opening Ceremony of the Games at which they competed.
Michelle said medaling was usually not the main highlight of the athletes’ careers.
“Part of that experience isn’t about the competition; it’s about that journey that you take to get there, the people you meet and that collective experience within the full Olympic and Paralympic Movement,” she said. “It comes back less to actual competition, and more about the human life experience, and the lessons learned from that that resonate much more from that experience.”
The inclusive and impressive layout in the museum takes visitors through the history and evolution of the Olympic and Paralympic Movements, showcasing the journeys of some of the best athletes on Team USA.
Tyler Carter works as a supervisor of guest experiences at the museum. He wears many hats, from running the daily operations to greeting athletes and visitors as they come in. Carter, who goes by “T.C.,” competed in the 2014 and 2018 Paralympic Games in Para alpine skiing.
He said the Paralympic Games have grown since he first started skiing at age of 8, and he said the museum is a great recognition of the importance of Para athletes.
“For the longest time, the Olympians were the only ones in the spotlight,” Carter said. “The Paralympics haven’t always existed, and they’ve been a little slow to kind of come up, get that spotlight and recognition. For us here, the Olympics and Paralympics are equal, and I think that’s one of the most important things.”
Carter said he enjoys the stories of and clarifying misunderstandings about the Paralympic Movement (e,g. it’s not the Special Olympics).
“It’s kind of a challenge getting the Paralympics out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of times we have guests coming in, and they haven’t heard of that. They don’t know what the Paralympics are, or they think the Olympics and the Paralympics are the same.”
Regardless, skier Carter wants to make an impact on every visitor who comes through — whether they have a disability or not.
McGrory, by the display of her chair and racing highlights, wants the same. She wants a person with a disability to be inspired by her success and pursue their own dreams.
“They always say to be the person you needed when you were a kid,” she said. “It’s hard to think of yourself as a mentor, role model or someone in that position, but that level of representation — kids getting to go in, seeing people who look like them in a museum, on TV, on a world stage— has an enormous impact.”