Last week I traveled to Brazil to represent the ICRC at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero. The purpose of my trip was to take part in the International Paralympic Committee’s Inclusion Summit, a two-day event that is held at each Paralympics with the goal of bringing together organizations and individuals focused on advancing the inclusion agenda for people with physical disabilities, both at the Paralympics itself and in society as a whole. In addition, I would give a presentation on the work I’ve been doing with the ICRC to build the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and network to establish relationships between the ICRC and potential partners with similar organizational goals. On top of these practical goals, though, I was excited to have the chance to take part in my second consecutive Summer Paralympics, connect with many colleagues and friends in the international wheelchair basketball community, soak in the amazing atmosphere of the Games and, of course, take in as many games as I could squeeze in around a full meeting schedule.
I was very curious to see how the Rio Paralympics would stack up against the 2012 London Games, which had been such a revelation in terms of both public promotion and overall popularity. London had filled its Olympic venues for all the Paralympic events (the Paralympics take place two weeks after the Olympics in the same city and are held in all the same facilities) and, with live coverage of the games on a major British TV channel and billboards, posters, and other promotions for the Games blanketing the city, the visibility of the Paralympics was taken to a previously inconceivable level. It was an incredibly high bar for Rio and all future Paralympics to meet.
There were significant (and legitimate) concerns immediately before the 2016 Games began. Brazil announced to the media just over a week before the opening ceremonies that it had run out of budget and was unsure if it would be able to fund the promised travel expenses for athletes from smaller nations without the financial wherewithal to send the athletes themselves. There had been widespread complaints from Olympians about the quality of the accommodations at the Athletes Village. Petty crime had been a persistent problem during the Olympics. And ticket sales for Paralympic events were much lower than expected in the days leading up to the Games; far behind where London had been.
Thankfully, just under the wire, the Rio Paralympic Organizing Committee came through and made it all work. The atmosphere in the city was infected by the Games, there were visible promotions everywhere, and Rio’s public services had been updated to ensure those with physical disabilities could effectively navigate the distances between the giant city’s various tourist neighborhoods and the area where the Olympic Park was located. The Park itself was packed with throngs of good-natured fans – both Brazilian and foreign – who had snapped up nearly every available ticket once the Organizing Committee decided to lower prices across the board, and armies of colorful-shirted Paralympics volunteers were everywhere to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible. It may not have quite reached the perfection of the London Paralympics, but Rio acquitted itself extremely well, especially given its myriad challenges going into the start of the Games.
The Inclusion Summit, which I had participated in during the London Games as well, was a valuable opportunity to hear presentations on the ways Brazil had prepared to be a fully-inclusive Olympic and Paralympic host country, reflections on the various successes and lessons-learned by London in 2012, and perspectives on various philosophies and strategies for promoting inclusion in the sporting and professional worlds. The presentation that made the most impact on me was by a young athlete named Luis Herazo, a javelin thrower with cerebral palsy from a tiny village in Columbia. He told his personal story of growing up as a relative outcast in his community, mocked and brushed aside in equal parts during his childhood. As a young teenager, Luis was introduced to adaptive sports by a local track and field coach. He couldn’t believe sport was something that could be available to someone like him, but he took to it immediately. In just a few short years, he began to excel as a javelin thrower and sprinter and, in 2016, became the first person from his district to ever win a gold medal at the Columbian national para games. Suddenly he was transformed from an afterthought in his society – and even in his own family – to a celebrity who was known and lauded throughout his home town. Every time visitors come to his family’s home, the first thing his father does is show them the room displaying Luis’s trophies, medals, and ribbons. It’s a story that mirrors that of so many of the athletes with whom I’ve been able to work in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Palestine, and India over the past several years, but one that never ceases to inspire.
The day after the Inclusion Summit, I was invited to give a presentation at the House of Switzerland – a temporary enclave set near Copa Cabana Beach that allowed locals to experience Swiss culture and history. The Swiss Embassy gave the ICRC its own presence at the House, which included a room full of large, high-resolution photos of the organization’s recent move to support sport in the nations in which it works. It was amazing for me to roll into the room and see posters of so many athletes I’ve coached all captured in one place. There was even a photo of me coaching players in New Delhi, India. It made me feel proud and nostalgic at the same time. It also made me miss some of the athletes I haven’t seen in several years.
I delivered my presentation through an interpreter since the majority of the audience were Portuguese speakers. I’ve coached through interpreters in all the places where I’ve worked, but I’d never given a speech with one, and it was a bit challenging at first since the translation was happening simultaneously with my speaking – both of us using microphones – so I had to figure out the pacing of telling the story, ensure I wasn’t getting too far ahead for the interpreter and audience to keep up, and try not to confuse myself in the process. We quickly hit our stride, though, and the audience was great. Once I finished the presentation, I spent the next 30 minutes answering a fantastic bunch of insightful questions from nearly every member of the audience. I’d given similar presentations in a few different venues over the past year, but I’d never presented to a general audience with no specific tie to the subject matter – it was really fun to interact with the Brazilian public in that way. Many thanks to the House of Switzerland and the ICRC for inviting me to do it!
Each day I was in Rio, I spent the whole day in presentations and meetings, then took a taxi with my Brazilian ICRC colleague, Flavio, to the Olympic Park to catch the last wheelchair basketball game or two of the night. Before our first game – the men’s semifinal between the U.S. and Turkey – Flavio and I had to track down our accreditation badges, graciously provided by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), which would allow us access to all the games as well as the “backstage” areas of the arena designated for players, teams, and officials. Unfortunately, the accreditation office with the badges had closed minutes before we arrived. However, we met two wonderful volunteers – one Brazilian and one British – who helped us get into the arena through back channels so we wouldn’t miss the USA game. While we were outside waiting for one of the volunteers to plead our case with a security guard, sitting in a dark corner in the massive expanse of the Olympic Park, I heard from behind me an Italian-accented voice call out my name. It was the wonderful Silvia Galimberti – the communications director of Italy’s wheelchair basketball champions, Briantea84. Sylvia was the person primarily responsible for inviting me, Alberto Cairo, and the Afghanistan men’s national team to Italy in 2014 to play our first games outside Afghanistan. Silvia has an irrepressibly positive personality and it was such an unexpected pleasure to reconnect with her so far from where we’d met. We shared a rooting interest in that night’s game, as U.S. player, Brian Bell, is the star of Silvia’s Briantea84 team during the Italian league season.
Getting back to the Games themselves, there were some major surprises during this Paralympic wheelchair basketball tournament, particularly on the men’s side. Turkey and Spain both made the semi-finals (against the U.S. and Great Britain, respectively), which was a big leap forward for both countries. The men’s teams from Australia and Canada had won all the gold medals in the past four Paralympics and, with Britain and the US, had comprised the medal competitors in nearly every Games during that time. Spain and Turkey had been rapidly developing both in their national professional leagues and in their international success the last several years, and making the medal rounds of the Paralympics was a culmination of that growth. Behind stifling defense and an innovative “small-ball” lineup featuring unbelievable team speed, the U.S. overwhelmed Turkey to make the gold medal game. In another surprise in a tournament full of them, the ascendant Spanish team upset Great Britain to set up a gold medal matchup with the Americans.
The following night, I had one of my absolute highlights of the week when I watched the women’s gold medal wheelchair basketball game between the U.S. and defending Paralympic gold medalists Germany. The U.S. team included two players I’ve spent the last two years coaching for the Denver Lady Rolling Nuggets – Christina Schwab and Natalie Schneider. I was so excited to see them play at the Paralympic level, especially in the championship game. Christina had won two Paralympic gold medals previously (and was a track & field racer in London after taking a few years off from basketball) and Natalie had won one Paralympic gold during several years as a national team member. The U.S. was trying to come back from a disappointing fourth place finish in 2012. Having practiced against them a couple times last year as they prepared for the North American Paralympic qualifying tournament, I knew how talented the team was and how focused they would be behind the coaching of Stephanie Wheeler, another multiple gold medalist as a player before moving into coaching full time. True to form, the U.S. women came out with complete determination. Behind an amazing 33 point, 8 rebound, 6 assist performance from star guard Becca Murray, the U.S. controlled the game from the outset and won by a comfortable 17 point margin to take home the gold. I felt so lucky to be able to watch my countrywomen, including Christina and Natalie, win the ultimate prize in our sport.
The next evening, the wheelchair basketball tournament concluded with the U.S. vs. Spain men’s gold medal game. While I didn’t have any players I had the same close relationships with as I did with the women’s team, it was still wonderful to watch the U.S. men represent the country with their exciting, fast-paced style. While the game was a bit closer than the women’s through the first half, the U.S. used a balanced defense-focused attack to gradually wear down the Spaniards, then broke the game open behind some incredible clutch three point shooting. In the end, the U.S. won by 16 points, securing our second gold – the first time the U.S. men and women had both won wheelchair basketball Paralympic gold medals in 28 years. It was also the first time the U.S. men and women swept the basketball gold medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Amazing.
One final anecdote from the Games that was fleeting but very impactful for me – as I arrived at the stadium for the men’s gold medal game and came in through the player’s entrance, I ran into Brad Ness, the captain of the Australian men’s team. I first met Brad back in October when I coached Afghanistan in the Asia Paralympic Qualifying Tournament in Japan, which Australia ended up winning to earn its spot in Rio. Brad came up to me in the early days of the tournament and introduced himself, offering to sit down with the Afghans and talk to them about the way the Australians had developed a positive, winning team culture. He also invited us to join an otherwise closed Team Australia practice so the Afghans could get an impression of how an elite team prepares for its games. Both experiences were invaluable to our growth, and Brad subsequently offered that anytime I ever needed help of any kind with spreading the game in Afghanistan or elsewhere, all I needed to do was give him a call. It was an incredible series of gestures on Brad’s part, and really set him apart in my mind as a global ambassador of the game.
When I saw Brad in Rio, however, something was different. Though he greeted me warmly when we saw each other, he looked completely shocked and dismayed. I knew Australia would have just finished the 5th place game against Brazil – itself a bit of a disappointment because Australia was so accustomed to playing for a gold medal in every Paralympics, but a game everyone expected the Aussies to win very easily. I asked Brad how the game went, and he responded, “Mate… I had a 17 footer to win it at the buzzer and I blew it.” This was Brad’s 5th Paralympics. He has been instrumental in Australia’s dominance and has won a gold and two silver Paralympic medals. In spite of his good-natured personality off the court, he is a fierce competitor on it. I couldn’t imagine how gutting it must be for him to have his team finish out of the medals and then miss the potential game winning shot to end the final game.
I tried my best to say something consoling, knowing nothing I said could ease the sting so soon after a loss. As we shook hands and started to go our separate ways, though, Brad turned and said, “Hey, Jess, you’re doing some really amazing work. I want you to tell the Afghanistan guys that I was really impressed with them in Japan. That was some good basketball they played, and I can tell they’re right on the verge of having everything click and becoming the kind of winning team they want to be. Really, any time you guys could use my help, I’m there.” I can’t properly express how much it meant for a guy going through what Brad was at that moment to step outside his own disappointment and take the time to say that. I also can’t think of a better personification of the Olympic/Paralympic spirit. I head back to Afghanistan in October, and I’ll definitely pass along Brad’s message. It will mean the world to the players.
Thank you to the city of Rio de Janiero and all the colleagues, players, and friends I reconnected with or was able to meet for the first time. It was a great, if all too brief, Paralympic experience.