Three- to Eight-Foot Tall World Class Competitors

This will be my one blog from Rio, until my duties as a jury member for these Paralympics are done, to maintain impartiality during my work. 20 years ago I worked at my first Paralympics as a producer for the Atlanta Paralympic Committee in charge of the Sitting Volleyball venue. These athletes always humble me, to see the joy in friendship and competition. They remind me of that great Chinese proverb, “Winning and losing are temporary, friendships last forever…”

Much was made of a picture of a 4’9” USA gymnast posing with 6’9” USA Volleyball star Matt Anderson. As my title notes, when you walk around the Paralympic village here, you will see dwarves just over three feet tall in their nation’s sweatsets, strolling next to the tallest athlete in these Paralympics, an 8’1” Iranian sitting volleyball player. That the range of world class competitors is much wider than in the Olympics is part of what these games are all about; fitting the world’s people, even those disabled, into the joy of play and competition.  Taking an Iranian kid who lived for years without leaving his house, and allowing him to become the MVP of a world sporting event – the 2016 World ParaVolley Intercontinental in China – just a couple of years later, is one of our sport’s best examples. There are thousands of stories here like that, of athletes overcoming barriers and changing their nation’s perspectives on disability.

For me, I smile the most at the unique collaborations seen daily.  People “trains” of sighted sport athletes leading their blind countrymen and women around the venues.  Team Nederland has Dutch-colored bikes to ride, while their fellow athletes in wheelchairs hold on to the back and get to whiz along the bike paths from dorm to dining hall and back. Sighted runners training and competing with their blind teammates connected by a long shoestring. Everyone playing games, mixing up wheelchair athletes with those with just one leg or one arm or born small or very tall, or blind – and laughing at all the unique situations that occur and need to be solved. This is a village right now where over 100 nations of people don’t feel ostracized or different; simply athletes competing to be the best at whatever they love to do. There are ramps so athletes don’t have to get help up a staircase in their wheelchair (as some have no ramp where they live). There are accessible places to get on a toilet. This place they will call home for 2 weeks is built to embrace all Paralympians and it is an inspiring place beyond words.

I also am proud to see the evolution of awareness in my own nation. In August, sponsors like BMW noted that they supported the Paralympians, and my flight down here on United, who has supported our nations athlete for over 35 years, had a promo video on every seat-back panel featuring a documentary on our USA competitors, Paralympians included. For those who have not seen the movie “Murderball,” I highly recommend for varsity team viewing and discussion. (Here is a pic and the trailer, I watched it being filmed in Athens in 2004, as the best USA and Canadian Wheelchair Rugby athletes told their stories and battled.  Another link to share the International Paralympic story on the Top Ten Events – which of course includes Sitting Volleyball.

For those wanting to watch the live stream, USA Volleyball’s site will carry information, and so does my current “boss” World Paravolley –  The game of course is played sitting down, and there are just five major rule differences between what volleyball players compete and train with. 1. This is SITTING volleyball so athletes  contacting the ball need to have one cheek on the floor (this is the only unique hand signal a referee does, flat hands lifted apart upwards). 2. You may block the serve (a rule that existed for all indoor volleyball until after the 1984 Olympics);  3. Your bottom must be behind the endline/2m attack line/center line, but your legs can go across; 4. You can touch the net (often seen with the legs), except the top of the net; 5. The court is smaller (6m wide/5m per side deep) and the net lower (1.05m for women and 1.15m for men).  That’s it. Anyone can play and I strongly suggest when you “lose” a practice court, to simply find a place to string a ribbon or rope up, using the top of two chairs as “standards” and experience the sitting game.

We are seeing record numbers in broadcasting these games, and other wonderful awareness signs. Today they are still installing warning button strips for the blind in the venues, and finishing elaborate ramps for the wheelies on their metro trains and other facilities.  Russia, who qualified both teams in the last spot possible in China this March, as a Paralympic National Federation has had, unlike the Olympics, their entire delegation banned from these games based on the McClaren report. So the Nederland women’s team and Ukraine men’s team have had just a couple of weeks to get ready to compete here. The likely gold medal matches will be USA vs China for the women, and Iran vs Bosnia Herzegovina for the men. You know how in the USA we have no men’s or women’s pro indoor volleyball league? In contrast, both the top two men’s teams come from nations with great pro leagues – for their SITTING teams; Iran has 16 pro teams alone in two divisions. Brazil’s two teams are in the running for medals too. The stadium fits 8,000, and the tickets have been sold out.  Brazilian law requires 10 percent disabled access at 3m wide spacing, so one of the challenges we have faced is fitting those spaces into the competition venue.  How many gamelike variations can you see in this pic from the Nederland women’s team court familiarization session at the venue?

One of my favorite peeps I have ever coached is here for her FOURTH Paralympics as a USA player. Lora Webster was a high school kid who made the first team we ever had in 2004. That team went from 0-30 in May to bronze medalists in August in Athens, and Lora was on the court for all those big wins. She started in both silver medal battles vs China in 2008 and 2012. She is here, with her now younger and amazing teammates, seeking to help bring home a gold. They beat China in China this March for the World ParaVolley International Cup gold medal, and have prepared even harder since then.

Ottobock, a company who does all sorts of Paralympic equipment work is here helping in ways only they know how. I remember in 2004 when USA player Kendra Lancaster, a below the elbow amputee, had to have them make her prosthetic hand stronger for blocking. At this level, as it was falling apart due to the strength and power in the game.  They did it, which allowed me to hide it before the bronze medal ceremonies, much to the delight of her teammates. Then again, it is a treat to watch a player stand up and fist pump and have her arm shoot across the floor. Yes, these are athletes who give their all in ways we can only learn from.

I hope you all take time to watch the matches online or on NBC, and for those of you who coach and teach – please take the time to experience some sitting volleyball. Everyone will smile and laugh and enjoy, and that is why we do what we do. For those who want drills, check them out here…although you know, you just need let the game train the brain…