SALT LAKE CITY — For the past two weeks the world has been inspired and moved as over 10,500 athletes from 204 nations and territories traveled to London in the quest for gold. The Games of the XXX Olympiad were a tremendous success and that London magnificently satisfied their official call to "Inspire a Generation."
Team USA had quite the medal haul with 104 being awarded to the Yanks, 46 of which were gold. Who can forget watching Gabby "the Flying Squirrel" Douglas win the all-around in women's gymnastics, or holding their breath as Michael Phelps brought his personal medal count to 22? The Williams sisters conquered Wimbledon (again) and it seemed like Team USA ruled the basketball and volleyball courts while crushing the competition in the pool and on the track. And let's not forget how the U.S. women's soccer team dominated the field.
The 530-plus athletes who made up Team USA were incredible ambassadors for our country, and for sport. They inspired us with their hard work, good sportsmanship and championship spirit. Our Olympians have inspired us to embrace and live the Olympic motto of "Citius, Altius, Fortius" — Swifter, Higher, Stronger — and for that we owe them our gratitude and respect.
Unfortunately, we as Americans do a poor job respecting and supporting Team USA. Let me clarify: we do a poor job respecting and supporting the other half of Team USA.
As Americans, we have an incredible love for the Olympic Games. We cheer our athletes and support Olympism and all that it stands for. We even dig into our pocketbooks to support our athletes in the pursuit of their dreams. But for some reason, that zeal seems to drop off once the Olympics are over. The closing ceremonies for the Games are like a benediction on the Olympic spirit, at least for two years.
What we forget is that two weeks after the closing ceremonies, the rest of Team USA will be in London to compete during the 2012 Paralympic Games — this year, from Aug. 29Sept. 9. Nearly 4,200 athletes from 150 countries will compete in 503 events covering 21 sports.
These amazing men and women have conquered debilitating illnesses or survived terrible accidents and have become the best in their sports. There are also 20 veterans who have survived the wounds of combat to compete and wear our country's uniform with honor and dignity once more.
Oscar "the Blade Runner" Pistorius, who competed for South Africa during the London Olympics, was the first introduction for many into the Paralympic movement. What you may not know is that the United States will be sending 227 athletes with physical disabilities who are just as inspiring as Mr. Pistorius.
Our Paralympians deserve the same level of respect and honor that our Olympians get. After all, Paralympics means to run parallel to the Olympics themselves. With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to ten Paralympic athletes from Team USA that you'll want to keep your eye on in London.
- Tatyana McFadden: Born in St Petersburg, Russia, McFadden is an 8-time world champion in wheelchair racing and a recognized actress. Diagnosed with spina bifida as a baby, she was abandoned in an orphanage, where she walked on her hands for six years. In 1994, McFadden was adopted by an American woman and brought to live in Illinois. Using sport as part of rehabilitation, McFadden discovered wheelchair racing and made her Paralympic debut at age 15 in the 2004 Athens Games, where she won a silver and bronze medal. In London, McFadden hopes to win her first Paralympic gold in the 100m, 200m, 1500m and marathon.
- Elexis Gillette: Born with a visual impairment, Gillette's vision began to fade when he was eight due to recurrent retinal detachments. Completely blind, Gillette was introduced to track and field in high school, where he immediately began to excel. At 19, he won a silver medal in the long jump at the 2004 Athens Games and another in 2008 in Beijing. In 2011, Gillette broke a long jump world record that had stood for nineteen years with a jump of 6.73 meters. He has earned eight American records and twelve national championships to date. As an athlete, motivational speaker and musician, Gillette lives by the motto, "No need for sight when you have a vision." Right now his vision for London is focused on gold.
- Cat "the Cat" Bouwkamp: Born with a clubfoot and diagnosed with fibular hemimelia (shortening of the fibula), Bouwkamp also developed scoliosis in her spine. After countless surgeries, Bouwkamp still couldn't run, so she decided to take up wheelchair fencing. Bouwkamp began competing internationally at age 13 and won her first international medal in Warsaw, Poland, just 7 months after she started training. She is also a three-time World Cup medalist who once competed only a few weeks after surgery. As the top-ranked female wheelchair fencer in the United States in all three blades of fencing (foil, epee, and sabre), The Bouwkamp has a very good chance of becoming Olympic champion.
- Jerome Singleton: Singleton was born without a fibula in his right leg which led doctors to amputate his leg below the knee when he was a year and a half old. After a life of sport, including a ranking in the top 100 college football prospects coming out South Carolina, Singleton discovered Paralympic running and hasn't looked back since. As the proclaimed "fastest amputee on the planet", Singleton has the speed to back up his title. Remember Oscar Pistorius? At the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships Jerome beat Pistorius in the Men's 100 meter sprint. I have a feeling he's going to leave the competition in London in the dust.
- Jessica Long: Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz may not be the only American swimmers to reach legendary status during their careers. Jessica Long competed in her first Paralympics (2004 Athens) at age 12 and shocked the world by bringing home three gold medals. In 2008 she brought home six medals and she's hoping for another half-dozen in London. Oh, and she's only 20, so plan on her personal medal count reaching some high numbers before she retires.
Born without most of the bones in her feet, ankles or fibulas, Long had both legs amputated below the knee shortly after her first birthday. Her love for the water developed as a child and she has been ripping it up in the pool ever since. With over twenty world records to her name, Long is one competitor to watch in London and in the years to come.
- Alana Nichols: Growing up active and competitive, Nichols played softball in high school until she broke her back in a snowboarding accident when she was 17. Now paralyzed from the waist-down, Alana has become one of the top competitors in the Paralympic Games. If the name sounds familiar, don't be surprised. Nichols was the top medal winner for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver with two golds, a silver and a bronze in skiing events. Her Canadian medal haul made Alana the first American woman to win gold in both summer and winter Games as it added to her wheelchair basketball gold from the 2008 Games. Look for her and her basketball teammates to repeat their golden performance in London.
- Matt "the Inspirational Archer" Stutzman: Born without arms, Stutzman's parents gave him up for adoption when he was just four months old. Leon and Jean Stutzman adopted Matt when he was about a year old and raised him on a farm in Kalona, Iowa, where he grew up feeding the animals, fishing with his family and playing sports with his friends. Stutzman took up archery at a young age so he could go hunting with his father. Despite his lack of arms, Stutzman taught himself to shoot with incredible accuracy by using his feet. Look for him to nail gold in London, because in the fall of 2011 he broke the world record for the longest accurate archery shot ever when he hit a target 230 yards away.
- Oksana Masters: Born in Ukraine, Masters was adopted by a single mother, who brought her to the United States in 1997. Due to her birth mother's constant exposure to radiation, Masters was born with multiple birth defects, including leg malformations that resulted in above knee amputations on both legs. Having endured multiple surgeries in her life, Oksana was invited in 2002 to try rowing, a sport that she immediately excelled in. She recently won a gold medal at the World Indoor Rowing Championship, where she also set a U.S. record for an individual rower. Oksana and her teammate are looking to win in the mixed doubles sculling.
- Mallory Weggemann: Most of us have big dreams for our post-college life, but for swimmer Mallory Weggemann those plans changed Jan. 21, 2008, when she received an epidural injection to alleviate some back pain she had been suffering from. Complications from the procedure left Mallory paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to give up, Weggemann returned to the pool in April 2008 and has since set 16 world records and 33 American records. She won eight gold medals and broke nine world records at the 2010 IPC Swimming World Championships and is currently ranked #1 in six of her seven Paralympic events.
- Rudy Garcia-Tolson: Rudy was born in 1988 with multiple birth defects that included Pterygium Syndrome, a clubfoot, webbed fingers and a cleft lip and palate. By age five, Rudy had endured 15 operations and had decided enough was enough. He underwent a final surgery to amputate both of his legs above the knee, and just three years later he stated that he was going to compete in the 2004 Paralympic Games, a promise he kept when he won gold in the 200-meter individual medley and broke the current world record for his class. Four years later, at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, Garcia won another gold medal and set another world record. Garcia can do anything he sets his mind to, and right now his mind is focused on gold.
These are but a sampling of the incredible athletes that will represent our country during the 2012 Paralympic Games. For all they have sacrificed and overcome, they deserve our respect and support. The Olympics are over, but don't forget the rest of Team USA.