The exhilarating moxie and sheer athleticism displayed by double amputee Oscar Pistorius, known as the “Blade Runner,” in his quest to medal for South Africa during the able-bodied Olympics is an example of the heights of competition on display during the Paralympics, set to begin Aug. 29.
Pistorius will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games, the biggest ever, featuring 4,200 athletes from 160 countries who will compete in 20 sports. Among them will be seven University of Arizona athletes: Zachary Abbott, Bryan Barten, Jordan Bird, Tanner Gers, Adam Kellerman, Jennifer Poist and Noah Yablong.
The games will begin with a sold-out opening ceremony on Aug. 29, will end on Sept. 9 and will feature the Olympic Village and arenas that captivatingly held the world’s attention during the Olympic Games.
At London 2012, the tennis competitions will be held for the first time in Eton Manor, a stadium created just for wheelchair tennis. The stadium will have a capacity for 10,500 spectators to view the very best the sport has to offer, with a total of 112 athletes across all divisions.
Competing in wheelchair tennis will be three UA Wildcats: alumnus and wheelchair tennis and rugby coach Barten; Kellerman, a sophomore physiology major who will represent Australia; and Yablong, a May 2012 UA graduate in engineering management with a minor in aerospace engineering.
In track and field, Bird, a UA psychology junior, will race for medals in the 400 and 800-meter competitions; Abbott, a physiology major, will race in the 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter events; and Gers, a business administration and communication junior who is visually impaired, will compete in the long jump competition and serve as an alternate in the 4 x 100-meter relay.
Poist, a second-year doctor of pharmacy student and the sole lady Wildcat in the Paralympics, will compete with 11 other teammates who made the cut for in the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team.
As a member of the UA women’s wheelchair basketball team, Poist was used to long hours of training with her teammates, but learning she was one of 18 women in the country to be invited to compete for a spot on the USA Paralympics team, she upped her routine and committed to solo practices of shooting and endurance training.
“The training was hard some days, but worth it. I was shocked to hear that I had made the team – it took a good month for it to set in. Now that London is a week away, I am ready to get there,” said Poist.
Poist, who is 23, has been in a wheelchair since age 7, when she developed a tumor on her spine. She chose the UA for its pharmacy and wheelchair basketball programs and moved to Tucson from McSherrystown, Pa.
“Being part of a team and working hard teaches you to work hard in other aspects in your life,” said Poist. “When I applied to pharmacy school, I was really nervous – it is very competitive, and I wasn’t sure I would get in, but when I got in it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I hope that all the girls who come after me will strive to make Paralympic teams and excel in school.”
In track and field, Abbott and Bird will compete in the wheelchair track competition, while Gers will compete in the blind/visually impaired group.
Excelling by leaps and bounds describes Gers' inherent talent in track and field, having made the cut for the USA National Team in the long jump in his first qualifying meet in 2011.
He lost his vision in an auto accident in 2004 and didn’t discover blind sport until 2008 when he began playing Beep Baseball, a version of baseball played using sound. For someone who started out not liking to run, Gers excelled in it. He gained selection the 2012 Para Pan American games in the 100 and 200-meter races and placed first in the long jump.
Gers, who was born in Lafayette, La. but now lives in Tucson, will have six jumps to earn qualification to compete for a medal in London. His mom, dad, aunt, uncle and wife will be attending the games. “My wife motives me to better. I’m excited to compete – it’s going to be fantastic,” Gers said.
Abbott, who has been racing since he was 11, was born with sacral agenesis, a condition characterized by the absence of the variable portion of the caudal portion of the spine. “I’ve dreamed of going to the Paralympics – it was my childhood dream.” He said a visit to Tucson to compete in the Jim Click Run and Roll convinced him the UA was for him.
He’s always liked going fast, and his wheelchair certainly didn’t hold him back. “My father always wanted an athlete for a child so my parents had me trying out different sports,” Abbott said. While growing up in Oregon, it was difficult to find teams to compete on that were near, but he kept his motivation high, pushing himself to excel. As for London, Abbott said, “I am looking forward to the crowd and watching the competitions in other events.”
At the age of 2, Bird lost his father and his ability to walk after the car they were traveling in was hit by a drunk driver. He started racing at age 5 and got faster and faster, over time deciding that the Paralympics was an achievable goal.
Training wasn’t easy – his mother, a horse trainer, adapted her training for Bird because any adaptive sport teams were far from the family farm in Kansas. “I chose the UA because of the Disability Resource Center, the Adaptive Athletics program and the weather.”
He is impressed with UA coaches and academic support for competitions and meets and looks forward to London, where his mom and girlfriend will be on hand for support. “I am ecstatic – there are no words to describe the feeling. There is no greater feeling than to compete for your country and for them to cheer for you in the race.”
Recent UA graduate Yablong said he is looking forward to seeing friends from all over the world during the London Paralympics – friends he has made in the 10 years he has dedicated to wheelchair tennis.
“Everything else pales compared to going to the Olympics. Life doesn’t get better than this. I would love to say I am going to get gold, but there are a lot of good players competing.”
He had played able-bodied tennis and most other sports before he was diagnosed at the age of 10 with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a condition that affects the bone and joints at the hip.
Earning a degree in engineering management taught him the essence of time management. Yablong, who is 24 years old, said he learned to balance the needs of his classes, training and the travel time for tournaments. “The support from the UA is spectacular. Arizona’s program is one of the top Adaptive Athletic programs in the country. The program offers so many competitive team options.”
Yablong, who will compete in singles and doubles, now lives and trains in his home state of Florida and said his whole family will be in attendance during the London games.
Representing Australia, Kellerman, who is 21 years old, was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma at the age of 13. He survived surgery only to succumb to a bone infection that would take two years and 25 surgeries to overcome. He battled depression and isolation until in 2006, when he began playing wheelchair tennis which made him feel alive and excited about the possibilities that lay in front of him.
After overcoming the initial challenge of moving the wheelchair, Kellerman began studying and training at the UA in 2010 and is excited to be representing Australia during the Paralympics in both singles and doubles and currently ranks second in Australia and 29th in the world.
While competing at the UA, Yablong and Kellerman and all the Adaptive Athletics athletes can rely on the experience, skill and unyielding support of their mentor, coach and fellow Paralympian, Barten.
Seven-time USA World Team Cup member and currently ranked No. 9 in singles in the world, Barten recruited Yablong and Kellerman to the UA wheelchair tennis team. He credits the culture and outstanding opportunities in Adaptive Athletics at the UA for the successful representation in the Paralympics.
“We are the best – the international aspect has blown up for us. Recruitment within the U.S. was great, but now we are recruiting international students to the program with success. It shows that we are the only place in the world that has this opportunity for wheelchair athletes to be a student athlete and compete internationally in wheelchair sports,” said Barten, who is 38 years old.
“There are programs nationally that may have a team – one wheelchair athletics team, maybe a basketball team, but we have five different sports here,” said Barten. “There is a whole culture here a wheelchair athletics culture – not just one team, all these teams supporting each other.”
What he would like to see most out of the London competitions is for the UA athletes to do well and to have a great experience. For himself, he is looking to stay healthy, having missed the 2008 cut for the Paralympics because of an injury in a qualifying match.