Athletes with disabilities weigh up different highs and lows of adaptive sports

Along with advantages to adaptive sports, many athletes still need more support when it comes to their specific disability and need

A B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association athlete. Gerry Kripps submitted photo
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By Adam Levi

Athletes with disabilities face obvious challenges in competitive sports. What is less intuitive is the edge their disability sometimes provides them.

From a wheelchair’s momentum to quicker recovery in weight-bearing sports, some adaptive sports have their advantages, often influencing an athlete’s performance and training.

According to the B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association’s wheelchair-racing coach, James Hustvedt, track and field athletes don’t have to worry about the toll of running on their bodies like able-bodied people do.

“We’re not weight-bearing,” Hustvedt said. “When [an able-bodied person] is running, your weight is bearing on your legs and your joints. While in the wheelchair, you’re supported by the chair. That lends for a shorter recovery for the body.”

Athletes in wheelchairs may not be able to out-do their able-bodied counterparts in shorter races, yet have a much quicker pace in distance races.

In 2009, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100-metre dash posting a time of 9.58 at the World Championships in Athletics. Whereas Finland’s Leo-Pekka Tähti crossed the line in 13.76 at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

In comparison, during 2017, Switzerland’s Marcel Hug clocked the fastest men’s Boston Marathon wheelchair race, finishing in 1:18:04. On the other hand, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, who holds the fastest time in the able-bodied race, clocked 2:03:02 in 2011.

Athletes with disabilities need more support

However, not all sports allow for advantages for athletes with disabilities.

Former Canadian Paralympic swimming champion, Donovan Tildesley said blind swimmers need tappers to prevent injury. He once split his head open from hitting the wall.

“I required someone to be with me at every practice or race,” Tildesley said. “I would need someone with a long stick and a foam tip, called a ‘tapper’ to tap me on the head as I’m coming into the wall, and that’s how I knew to make a flip-turn.

The difference in swimming times grows the longer the race goes on. The Netherland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojoset the record for the 50-metre swimwith a time of 24.05 at the 2012 London Olympics. Yet, Paralympic, blind swimmer Maryna Piddubna from the Ukraine finished a race at 30.22 at the IPC Swimming World Championships in Dublin.

For the 800-metre swim, Katie Ledecky set the record at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil posting a time of 8:04.79. That’s nearly three minutes faster than the Paralympic record at the distance set by Germany’s Daniela Schulte clocking in at 10:57.82.

Yet, regardless of the adaptation of the sport, or the way it’s played, according to Paralympic athlete and academic, Staci Mannella, who is a blind skier, the goals are the same.

“My goal is to ski fast and that’s the same as an able-bodied skier,” Mannella said. “Regardless of how I achieve that goal, that’s still the goal.”

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