The Inspiring Paralympic World Championships


Jessica Long starts the 50 FreeBy Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

In sports, two philosophies dominate the goal-setting landscape: “Winning Is Everything” and “Doing Your Best.” Sometimes these philosophies align themselves, and magic happens. (See: Phelps, Beijing Olympics). Other times, the former overrides the latter. (See: Many professional sports; “Ochocinco”). Though winning feels good, the problem with worshipping the “Winning Is Everything” philosophy is that when you lose, by your own definition, you fail. Even if you achieved a personal best time.

I seek sports where “Doing Your Best” is celebrated more than “Winning Is Everything.” Winning, to me, means nothing without that gut-wrenching, never-ending quest to better yourself. I’m more interested in the athlete who gives 110% just to give 110% rather than the athlete who gives only as much to beat the other guy.

In 2008, I attended my first Paralympics qualifier. The meet was in Ypsilanti, Michigan. At the time, I followed many professional sports where the biggest, fastest and super-freak athletes demanded the adoration of fans, sought only to conquer the other team or opponent. And it always made me feel empty. Conquering was the overriding objective. Winning seemed to be, simply put, everything.

Immediately, I knew this Paralympics qualifier was unlike any other sports competition I had attended. Some swimmers had no legs. Others had no arms. Some couldn’t see. Others couldn’t start from the blocks. But as I watched, I realized the real point of this meet was to conquer not for fame and fortune, but to conquer one’s self.

And my perspective changed. Rather than seeing these athletes in terms of their classifications and physical limitations—who couldn’t do this or that—I began to see them for what they could do: I watched an Army veteran with one leg swim a perfect freestyle stroke. I watched a teen with no legs dive from the blocks. I watched a man with one arm swim the 100m butterfly.

The thing is, sports only matters when the philosophy changes from “winning” to “maximizing.” Maximizing one’s potential is the one thing in athletics that truly matters. Win, great. Lose, that’s OK. As long as you maximized your own body’s potential, that’s all you can ask. I’m more interested in the kid who practices hours of free throws a day and occasionally misses than the gifted physical specimen who never misses and also never practices. When winning is achieved without effort, it becomes meaningless.

I’d be hard-pressed to find one Paralympian who wins without effort.

After that Paralympics qualifier, I began to see athletics differently. I began to care more about the “Doing Your Best” philosophy and much less about the “Winning Is Everything” philosophy. I began to derive as much inspiration watching a 92-year-old swim a two-mile practice as I did watching the Olympics or the Super Bowl. That’s not to say athletes who achieve the pinnacle of success don’t maximize their own potential. But I’m done with sports that celebrate winning over all else: The showboating, the trash talk, the chest-thumping five meters before the finish line. Who cares? There’s simply no glory when competing for glory.

Athletes do not become involved with the Paralympics for glory, or gold medal gain, or fame and fortune. Heck, before 2008, in the U.S., you couldn’t even see the Paralympics on TV (North Korea being the only other country in the world not to broadcast the Paralympics.) Paralympians compete not only because they want to win, but also to maximize their body’s potential. It’s that wonderful—and rare—combination in sports that makes the viewing experience the absolute apex of inspiration. More than the Super Bowl. More than the NBA Finals. More than the World Series. The circumstances to overcome and perform and maximize… this is why the Paralympics trump any other athletic competition. The intentions are not for mainstream sports glory, but for personal glory. It may be a subtle difference in wordage, but not in meaning.

I watch the IPC World Swimming Championships this week to be inspired. To see U.S. Paralympic greats like Jessica Long and Becca Meyers and Cortney Jordan bring home gold. But I also watch because the Paralympics define what it means to maximize one’s potential.

To do one’s best.