by, Renee wood
Many people don’t know this about me, but I was very athletic back in the day. Now at the ripe age of 58, it’s hard to imagine me running, throwing and swimming. My CP was quite involved even when I was young. Doctors would look at my ankles, knees as well as test my balance, and they would marvel at my ability to walk without a mobility device – much less run. I had incredible physical strength, stamina and my keen spatial perception compensated for my lack of balance due to CP, and gave decent balance – I fell often, but even my falls were gentle and graceful. Plus my physical therapists would tell my parents that I lacked the ability to “fear” (meaning I would try anything). I guess they thought that was a problem, but I think it served me quite well in many aspects of life, and is possibly one of the reasons why I am where I’m at today. Equally I’m sure, pushing myself back in my 20’s and 30’s, even in performing activities of daily living, contributed to my inabilities now, but I wouldn’t trade one second of that freedom just for a little more ability.
In my late teens until late twenties, I was involved in adaptive sports – specifically what was known as the Cerebral Palsy Games. It was a highly athletic competition for people with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy. There was 7 classes from I to VII which went by level of physical impairment – I was a class I in field events (lack of range of motion in shoulders and poor finger dexterity and/or gross motor coordination), and in track and swimming events, I was a class IIb (leg dominant – in that I propelled my manual wheelchair with my legs). As far as class, I functioned physically to be placed in the lowest class even though I could walk.
I first got involved with the Games more for a social outlet, but my athletic abilities were soon recognized in Michigan Regionals, and again in Nationals in Rhode Island. I was breaking records and raking in golds for our Toledo Ohio team. I remember in the Nationals my coach challenged me to throw like I was doing in practice, which, I was blowing the record out of the ballpark, but just wasn’t doing it here when it counted. It was my third and final throw in the soft shot to qualify for my 2nd International games in Belgium (which were later cancelled because of Chernobyl). My coach whispers in my ear, “If you do this, I’ll buy you a 12 pack and deliver it to your home”! I’m like, “Seriously”! He said, “I promise”. Well my next throw broke the record, and I held that record for the next ten years! Long after my athletic days – youngsters were trying to beat my record – and I did get my 12 pack, although my coach sheepishly admitted, he didn’t think I was going to do that. It became a team joke, “Want Renee to do her best? Offer her beer”!
My first Internationals was in Denmark. Out of 1,500 the US competitors, I was 1 of 59 that qualified for the Internationals. Actually, 2 other women from our small, but mighty, Toledo team made Internationals too that year. It was a shock that a goof-off jock like myself made this cut. My Toledo coach called it “natural talent” rather than hard work – oh but, once I qualified – it became hard work. Honestly though, I had swam ever since I was young like 5 years old, in a quarry, in the summer. I mean every single warm day, all day, I was swimming with typical kids in a quarry – I always had a life jacket on, but swam independently – my body was strong and adept in water. Once I started seriously competing, I caught the bug. I would dream about how to do my events – I would feel every movement I would need to make, see every possible mishap and devise ways of avoiding it, or overcoming it. In my mind I would go through it over and over again. I wanted to win just for the sake of winning. If I didn’t win at something, I wasn’t mad, just challenged to come back stronger and win next time.
I remember one particular swimming meet – I was swimming my damnedest and all I kept hearing is “Renee …..” over and over and it was mostly my coach’s voice, and I thought he wanted something, so I stopped for a second to look up from my backstroke and came in 2nd by a hair – I guess I was winning til I stopped to look. But when I got out of that pool, I got it, “Why the hell did you stop and gawk at me”?! I retorted, “Why were you calling me? I thought you wanted me to do something”. He yelled, “It’s called cheering Renee, that’s what people do! You don’t stop and gawk in the middle of a meet (slapped me gently upside my head), even if my hair’s on fire you keep going”! So for a long time my teammates would make a gawking face at me when I was going to swim!
In Denmark I medaled in all my events – 2 gold and 2 silver. What really caught the attention of coaches from other countries is my Boccia Ball performance. Since class ones and twos are significantly impaired especially in their upper bodies, Boccia Ball was something many in this class could do for a field event, so this sport was only for these 2 classes, it was co-ed and extremely competitive. When we went to the 5 day practice and orientation before traveling to Denmark, the coaches wanted me in another field event since I excelled in them, so they decided Boccia. Well I had never played Boccia, but the concept of getting the ball closest to the white ball was simple enough to understand.
However, the balls in the US were the size of soft balls and made of hard plastic or something, but I couldn’t open my hand wide enough to get a decent grip, so I ended up rolling it down my leg. In other words, during US practice I was not very good at it. So they signed me up for individual Boccia, rather than team Boccia, and that way I had another event and if I did horrible it wouldn’t be on the team – a decision they regretted, but truly made since at the time. Overseas Boccia balls are covered with a soft squishy leather and were easy to grip. I was killing athletes that were recognized champs for years. Coaches from other countries were gathering to watch me. The key to my success was, I would watch my opponent throw and learn their weakness. Some CPs have too much spasticity and can throw far, but not so good near. Others were good at near, but not so good at far, so when it was my turn to throw the tee ball (white ball), I’d throw it where they were the weakest, and that’s where we had to aim the balls to get it closest to that tee ball. I could throw either far or near with purposeful precision. I remember one coach said “She’s doing that intentionally”, meaning I was actually competing like a typical athlete would, not just playing the game. That silver medal was the best in those particular games because no one saw that coming – including me!
Some highlights I remember from Denmark;
- A cute blonde hair Dane guy picking me up out of my wheelchair and carrying me to receive my gold medal.
- Participating in opening ceremonies – strolling in with your countries uniform – feeling proud and honored. Yet seeing so many from other countries and being in awe of that moment in time!
- Drinking with the Ireland team after our events were over – that was so much fun – hearing CPs with an Irish brogue. Their sense of humor was uncanny
- Being in a non-English speaking country – I loved that people would communicate without language and not understand not due to disability, but due to language – such a great equalizer
- Competing in the US Soccer team was the greatest – my stomach hurt so bad from the excitement of wanting to do my best for the team
- I loved my coach Raphael – he wasn’t keen on coaching class1s (bottom of the totem pole I guess), but I changed that – why do coaches loved to yell at me – just because I’m a goof-off!? I don’t remember what he said to me, but remember him throwing down his camera and clipboard, and was pissed. But we’ve kept in contact on and off all through these years!
- I remember the foreign food – something with green gravy, goat’s milk in little containers, lamb, and stuff we never seen before – I was convinced we would starve. We learned to eat it, but pizza helped supplement our diet.
- And of course, my piece of advocacy – ensuring that if athletes couldn’t drink alcohol til their personal events were over, neither could coaches! However, I do remember once asking for a beer (making sure I batted eyes and smiled flirtatiously), and the coach gave me one, and I did have 1 more event left, but it wasn’t the next day or anything J
Each time I watch the Olympics my body remembers the moves, the feeling of competition. I can even feel my blood pressure rise! With time it fades, but never completely. Of course the summer Olympics are the ones I really relate to since those were my events. I hope you enjoyed the Olympics this year and realize this is something that will shape the lives of those Olympians as long as they live!