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Paralympics Athletes Training for More Than Gold

The upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy will showcase the best athletes in the world competing at the highest level. These games will be followed by the Paralympics, which will showcase the best disabled athletes in the world. The goal for Olympic athletes is to win the gold and set themselves apart. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports, Paralympics athletes compete in part to be seen and to feel just like everyone else.

Most of the day Travis Farley is confined to a wheelchair, but when he is on the ice, playing hockey, he is like any other athlete training to be the best and competing to win.

"The only way I can describe it is that I feel like I don't have a disability,” says Travis. “I feel like everybody on the ice are equals. We're here for the same reason."

He is one of a growing number of disabled athletes in the United States. The National Ability Center in Salt Lake City, Utah in the western United States supports the training of disabled athletes in a variety of sports including hockey and skiing. When it first opened in 1986, the center taught fewer than 50 disabled people to ski. Last year it taught over 10,000 people.

Director Meeche White says the Paralympics has helped fuel this growing interest in disabled sports. "We believer that having an elite end to many of the sports we have, while it's a very small percentage of our athletes who will attain that or go for it, even for the ones who are not going for it, it's a bar. It's a high mark. It's something that motivates all of us."

The hope of one day possibly playing in the Paralympics motivates many disabled athletes to test their limits. This is certainly the case in Wheelchair Rugby, a sport sometimes referred to as Quad Rugby because the athletes are mostly quadriplegics who sustained serious spinal injuries. But those who play wheelchair rugby call it Murderball because of the violent contact that goes on.

Coach Rick Draney, who won a gold medal in the 2000 Paralympics games, says the sport looks more violent than it is. "I've had stitches in my head and had surgery on a elbow a time or two, but for the most part we're pretty injury-free. They chairs are designed in such a way that they take most of the impact and the abuse."

Team captain Tim Daines was a competitive swimmer until he broke his neck 16 years ago diving into a shallow lake. He says the rewards from playing rugby -- the competition, the camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment -- far outweigh the risks.

"You see these guys who get injured and they don't have very much going in their life and they just got out of the hospital,” says Tim. “They don't know what their future is going to bring. And getting them into these rugby chairs, and watching them play for the first time, and seeing them smile again and enjoy life. And it gives them a passion -- each morning they wake up and have something to forward to."

Disabled skier Monte Meier has experienced the thrill of victory, winning a gold medal in the 1998 Paralympics in Japan. He will be representing the United States again this year in Turn, Italy. He thinks the U.S. Paralympics program is fine but the broadcast arrangements are not. The United States will not broadcast the Paralympics.

"We may be a leader in the sports side of disabled skiing and Paralympics, however, out of 63 stations around the world that are covering the Paralympics, there is not one from the United States," he says.

It is unfortunate, advocates for the disabled say, because showcasing the best disabled skiers, rugby teams, and hockey players not only inspires other disabled people to try, but, also helps all of society value people for their abilities and not their limitations.