Paralympic Parables: Words of Wisdom from US Paralympians

Amputees who compete in the Paralympics may seem larger than life, but they’re just like you and everyone else who’s living with limb loss. And they’ll be the first to tell you that.

Team USA’s amputee athletes manage the same limb-care issues you do, fight the same healthcare battles, deal with the same cultural stereotypes, and endure the same emotional ups and downs. Like you, they crash into brick walls of frustration, self-doubt, and pain; they also take pride in their breakthroughs and triumphs. 

Whenever they talk to Amplitude, Paralympic athletes inevitably bring up subjects that transcend sports and matter to everyone—how to strive for excellence and live with imperfection; how to push ourselves hard but give ourselves grace; how to hack a purposeful, satisfying path through the messy weeds of life. That’s why these crazy runners and swimmers and throwers do what they do. In the end, they’re not in it for the medals. They’re in it for the same thing we all are: to make our lives count for something. Here’s some of what they’ve taught Amplitude over the years.

Haven Shepherd on Trauma

I talk about the Paralympics as a goal, not a dream, because dreams are a thing you get to live your whole life. The Paralympics just happen in that moment. A dream is a lifelong thing to me. 

My dream is to help women in difficult circumstances change their lives for the better. What a great satisfaction it is to help somebody who needed help and know that they also gave you something in return. Nobody is free from having a traumatic story. All of us have to go through something traumatic. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really honed in on the fact that you can only control how you feel. I’m not gonna act like I’m a victim. I’ve had a beautiful life. 

Derek Loccident on Patience

Coming from football to track, it’s a different world. I expect things to happen right away and see immediate progress. That’s what football is—you practice, and you start seeing results. But track is a process. You’re training for three years, building up to prepare for the Games, and trying to peak at the right moment. It’s all a learning process. Even on my worst day, there are things that I can work on. My coach can give me info and give me feedback, and I have to trust that if I apply that, it will lead to good things down the line and put me in position to do my best.

Scout Bassett on Struggle

Obstacles and setbacks are things we all face, no matter what path we’re on. One of the most profound things I was ever told was from a mentor of mine, and she said: “You never know if your story—your struggles, your hardships, the pain, the trauma, the loss—if those things might be somebody else’s survival guide.” I was just so struck by that, because I never really thought about my story in that way. But I’ve picked up some tools to help me with different things that I’ve dealt with—failure, disappointment, identity issues, loneliness, mental health. My struggle might not look the same as yours, but struggle is part of the human condition.

Tre Jenifer on Stigma

For the entirety of my life, I’ve been stared at because I’ve been different. You know, kids have stared at me, parents have stared at me, and it’s just because I didn’t have any legs. And now we’re changing that perspective—you could stare at me, but now you’re staring at me because I’m a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, I’m a father, and I’m a full-time employee with the federal government. I want people to know that there’s life outside of my disability. I don’t let my disability identify who I am. All these other things do. So it’s not just about the sport—it’s outside of sport. We’re demolishing the stigmas that surround disability. 

Hunter Woodhall on Adaptation

When COVID hit and the Paralympics were cancelled [in 2020], I thought, “I can either just kinda stop and complain about everything that’s going on, or I can get to work and try to create something.” That’s when we launched Giant Hoodies [Woodhall’s clothing company]. And it just kinda started to take off. I feel like we kind of created a brand that people could connect with. 

This is not the first bad thing or hurdle that’s gotten in my way. It was just a matter of—how can I make the best of the situation? It was actually very freeing for me, because since I’ve been 14, every second of my life and every day has always been about track. The break kind of gave me a chance to pull away from track and take my mind off the sport. So for me, it was more of a blessing than anything, and I needed it more than I knew at the time.

Beatriz Hatz on Simplicity

I do get kind of anxious. When you’re on that stage, it’s kind of scary. But I will take big, deep breaths and give myself one or two things to focus on so that I’m not overthinking during competition. I typically just think about getting my knees tall and keeping good posture. If I can execute both those things, I can get the height that I need when I’m jumping. It gives me less to worry about, which is good. 

I look up to one of the athletes I coach. He’s only 16, so he’s quite young, but his attitude is why I look up to him. This kid can have a great day or a bad day, but he will always have a smile on his face and be excited just to compete. That’s the attitude that I need. Sports can be frustrating, and I need to be reminded of what I do have.

Melissa Stockwell on Normalization

You have big companies such as Toyota that sponsor Paralympic athletes, and I think it influences other companies. I saw a commercial for Target, and it wasn’t focused on the disability market, but there was someone in it who was missing their arms. They didn’t make a big deal out of it; it was just another person who was in the commercial. It’s a way of having [disability] be more normal, more mainstream. There are millions of people with disabilities, and most of them are not Paralympians. We’re just like anybody else. We’re going shopping at Target, and we’re doing all these things that everyone else does.

Ezra French on Consistency

I went to Tokyo as a 16-year-old, competing at my first Paralympics. And I knew that if I stayed consistent, the growth and improvement would be dramatic by the time we got to Paris. If I kept working hard, I would continue to get stronger, my body would change, and I just had to continue to train and stay in good shape. 

The difficult thing was that I wanted to grind, grind, grind, pound, pound, pound all the time. I thought that was the way to success. But at some point, you’re doing things that are detrimental and are moving you backward. I reframed my mindset this past year to more of a holistic approach, which is optimizing everything instead of optimizing just one thing. That means sleep, that means yoga, that means meditation, that means the mental side of things—every single aspect of my training needed to be optimized. That was a really big mindset shift, and it has led to some massive improvement.

Natalie Sims on Goals

Everyone is on a different path and a different journey. Everyone is reaching their own goals. It doesn’t have to be a sport. It can be anything that brings you joy in life. I think it’s really important to find something that brings you some sort of joy. Swimming has been that outlet for me. 

Some of the skills I’ve learned in competition translate to the workforce. Diligence, hard work, dedication. And it also translates to being a little competitive. If I set a goal for myself at work that I want to achieve, I’m gonna work hard to achieve that.

Femita Ayanbeku on Expecations

In Tokyo, I had such high expectations. And COVID just took everything away from me. [Ayanbeku tested positive after arriving in Tokyo.] I came back in a very hard place, after setting my expectations so high. So you can have expectations and goals, but be realistic. I don’t want to set them too high to where I’ll get down on myself if I fall short, even though I am going to be doing the best that I can. It’s gonna hurt me more than it will help me if I try to set goals bigger than myself. I gotta stay in the right place with that.

Images: Tim Goode/PAIMages/Alamy, Nippon News/AFLOSPORT/Alamy, MichaelPreston/Alamy, SeanBurges/Alamy, MATSUO.K/AFLOSPORT/Alamy, JohnWalton/PAImages/Alamy, NaokiNishimura/AFLOSPORT/Alamy, CalSportMedia/Alamy, WikiCreativeCommons, Mark Davidson/Alamy.

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