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Almost mainstream: Disabled and Paralympic sport

April 12, 2014

Sports on the brain, yep – that’s me. I love sports and recently I have come become more familiar with disabled and Paralympic sport. My hero is Canadian cross-country skier Brian McKeever. For anyone who knows anything about cross-country skiing, I am pretty sure he doesn’t need an introduction.

A couple days ago I had a great opportunity: I got to meet two Finland’s most well-known Winter Paralympic athletes: alpine-skier Katja Saarinen and snowboard crosser Matti Suur-Hamari. So how did that opportunity come about?

I got inspired by this:

This is the daughter of a friend of mine from high school. She has been using a prosthetic since she was about two. As you can see she’s an accomplished skier (also a work in progress!) and she plays hockey. This little firecracker has a fantastic future ahead of her in sports, if she chooses that path.

When the Winter Olympics in Sochi had come to a close, I told the Little Miss that the Paralympics were not far behind and we would be able to watch more sports. I gave her a little introduction to Paralympic sport on YouTube and answered a bazillion questions. Then I suggested that we could try and get some Paralympic athletes to visit her class at school. She liked that idea. When I pitched it to one of her teachers, the response was an enthusiastic yes, but for the whole school. So with a little footwork on my part and some organization by the Little Miss’ school the opportunity presented itself. Little did we know we were receiving Finland’s star winter Paralympic athletes!

In Sochi, Katja Saarinen participated in her fourth and final Paralympics games in alpine skiing. She has been skiing for what seems an age. Her skiing career spans many years and according to her Sochi Paralympic profile, she first competed back in 2002. In Sochi, she was the flag bearer for Team Finland and finished 12th in the Women’s Standing Giant Slalom. She decided to call it quits after the Sochi games and now works as a development manager for the Finnish Paralympic Committee.

Sochi represented the first Paralympic games for Matti Suur-Hamari. While he had been snowboarding prior to his accident, he didn’t take it up competitively until 2012. He was named the International Paralympic Committee’s athlete of the month in February 2014. He finished 11th in the Men’s Standing Snowboard cross event.

It is hard to cram everything into 45 minutes, but that’s all we had with Katja and Matti. They began by showing an introductory video from the Finnish Paralympic Committee showing a myriad of Paralympic winter sports. Then they showed videos of their performances in Sochi. With a bit of explanation and some prodding the kids began to ask questions.

To Katja: “You only have one leg in the video, so how is it that you have two legs right now?” Katja explained the nature of her disability; her leg was amputated when she was a child due to inoperable and untreatable cancer. And she described what kind of prosthetic she had, describing it as a “robot leg.” The kids’ curiosity was piqued. Did they want to see what it looked like: an enthusiastic yes from the kids assembled and many ooohhs and ahhhhs at this moment:

Alpine Paralympic skier Katja Saarinen

Alpine Paralympic skier Katja Saarinen

To Matti (after they figured out that he also has a leg amputation): “What happened to you?” Matti was in a motorcycle accident over four years ago and his leg was amputated below the knee.

What was funny (or maybe not because we all know what kids are like) was their interest in pain and the “blood and gore” of their amputations.

  • “Did it hurt?”
  • “Were you sad when they had to remove your leg?”
  • “What did they do with your leg after they removed it?”
  • “Did they put you to sleep when you had your operation?”
  • “Do you have phantom pain?”
  • “What does the end of your leg look like now?”
  • “Does it hurt right now?”
  • “How do you put your leg on?”
  • “Do you take your leg off to sleep?”
  • “Can you take off your shoe” (To Matti)

I also had the chance to ask some questions:

  • “How did things go in Sochi?” (See above)
  • “The courses looked challenging, how do they compare to the courses able-bodied athletes ski on?” Katja mentioned that the courses were essentially the same for alpine skiing, but the snow conditions were pretty challenging because it was so warm, resulting in heavy, slushy conditions. There are, however, fewer and smaller jumps in Paralympic ski courses.
  • To Matti: “How does skicross work at the Paralympic level?” In men’s standing skicross there are three runs and results are calculated based on the two best times and the third one discarded. Para skicrossers board alone, it is not like the roller derby of the skicross of the able-bodied crew.
  • “Do you train with the (able-bodied) national teams?” Katja: No, but she has trained with the junior national team. Matti: Yes, he does, the training is essentially the same.
  • “You two are athletes, so do you have different legs for different purposes?” Katja: Well, she skis in competition without her prosthetic, but she does have a prosthetic for everyday use and one for sporting activities. Matti: Yes, I have three legs: one for every day use (he pointed to the one he had on), a running leg (a blade) and one for snowboarding and sport activity.

I hope I can be forgiven for my infinite curiosity and wanting to ask questions, but the last thing I want to do is offend someone. I am sure I could have asked questions all day…

That being said, if you’re in Finland and you want your child and his/her cohorts to meet Paralympic athletes, be sure to contact the Finnish Paralympic Committee. Their school can apply to be part of Para School Day (site is in Finnish), which is in fact administered by Katja herself.

Check out how these two roll!

One of Matti’s runs from Sochi.

Katja in a training run prior to Sochi

Katja was chosen as one of Samsung Finland’s Galaxy Team members and this great video was made showing her hard at work training:

Katja has also been mountain climbing.

Here’s a listing of some of Finland’s active Paralympic athletes (in Finnish).

Want to know more about Paralympic sport classification? Well, back in January I found two really great articles in a magazine put out by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). This issue featured fantastic news about the world of Paralympic sport. I turn your attention to page 28 (Paralympic classification) and page 34 (Appropriately interviewing athletes with a disability).

Disabled sport definitely has more visibility than in the past. I am still disappointed, for example, to see that wheelchair sprinter Leo-Pekka Tähti (in spite of holding six IPC World Championship medals (2-2-2), five Paralympic Games medals (4-0-1) and a world record in the T54 class in the 100m has still not been selected as Finland’s athlete of the year, in spite of being nominated several times over the last few years.

I look forward to the day when the Olympics and the Paralympics (and other disciplines’ World Championships and World Cup events) are staged at the same time; then the final wall will have come down. Disabled sport is not about the nature of disability – it’s all about ability. Katja and Matti said it all the other day when they both iterated that they had not yet found a sport or activity that they had not been able to do.

Thanks Katja and Matti, it was really great to meet you!

Katja Saarinen and Matti Suur-Hamari

Katja Saarinen and Matti Suur-Hamari

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