ADA, Anderson Cooper, athletes with disabilities, Bob Costas, Brian Williams, challenged athlete, champion, Charla Faddoul, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman, Deaflympics, dreams, Equality, Jenny Thompson, Jessica Long, Jimmy Fallon, Mallory Weggemann, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, MS, Olympics, Paralympics, Phil Keoghan, Piers Morgan, President Obama, recumbent trike, Ryan Seacrest, Special Olympics, swimming, The Amazing Race, Today Show, Trischa Zorn
Fifty-five medals in all, 41 gold, nine silver and five bronze. This female swimmer holds more medals than any other athlete, male or female, from any other nation. She’s an American, from California; a school teacher devoted to special needs kids. Do you recognize her?
This elite swimmer set a whopping THIRTEEN individual world records (still holds nine) and in 1996 she was named one of the top 10 female athletes of the year by the United States Olympic Committee. So why don’t we know her face or name, especially considering the fact that she bettered the medal-wins of Phelps and this famous swimmer:
She matched or bettered the Olympic performances of Spitz not once or twice, but FOUR times. Wait, are you too young to remember Mark Spitz? Okay, Okay, let’s talk more recent history.
Michael Phelps has twenty Olympic medals. Jenny Thompson, whose name every female Olympian-wannabe swimmer knows, has twelve Olympic medals. Doesn’t seem remotely possible, does it, that anybody who knows the names and reputations of Michael Phelps & Jenny Thompson wouldn’t have heard of this swimmer who’s netted almost three times the number of Michael Phelps’ medals and over four & 1/2 times the number of Jenny Thompson’s medals.
Who is she, this “unknown” swimmer more medalled than the athletes whose names and faces we see and hear whenever swimming, champions and medals are mentioned?
Her name is Trischa Zorn.
If you’re wondering how she escaped your notice, how it’s possible that an athlete of such hard-earned, well-deserved honors seems to have no place amongst the names and faces we consider synonymous with worldwide fame for achievement in the sport of swimming, consider how we come to know the stories of amazing athletes. Think about the means by which accomplished athletes become favored, how it is they make that mythical, almost-mystical transition from unknowns to heroes, to celebrities. Their stories are told, over and over again, in print, on our television and computer screens and through good, old fashioned radio waves.
Trischa Zorn’s fifty-five medals were earned in the Paralympic Games. She has been legally blind since birth. The reason her name and face aren’t as recognizable as Spitz’, Phelps’ or Thompson’s is, quite simply, because she is a person with a disability. The Powers That Be of our media – which is to some extent a reflection of the values of our society – have decided Zorn’s story and accomplishments, her courage and strength, the very medals that designate her as a world champion in her sport, are worth less than the stories and accomplishments, courage, strength and medals of able-bodied athletes.
Worth less, as in not having enough value. Value, as in the number of viewers who could be expected to tune in to the Paralympic Games; value, as in the number and caliber of sponsors who would buy advertising. After considering their values, television networks have deemed the Paralympic Games unworthy of coverage. Not even cable networks cover the Paralympic Games. Zorn swam her way to all those medals – to all of that gold, silver and bronze glory – without the national and international media attention afforded to athletes in the Olympic Games. Which says legions more about the media and our society than it does about Zorn and athletes with disabilities.
Many people don’t even know we’ve been holding Paralympics since 1960. Of those folks aware of the existence of the Paralympic Games, many confuse the Paralympics (for athletes with physical disabilities) with the Special Olympics (for athletes with intellectual disabilities). I didn’t know that the Deaflympics exist until I went looking for the correct links for this post. Which is to say, I’m not trying to shame anybody for not knowing about the Paralympics (or Special Olympics or Deaflympics) or for not knowing the names and faces, the feats of those Games. What I’m trying to say is that I think we are – all of us – grossly unaware and uninformed when it comes to the achievements of some of our most accomplished and most inspiring athletes. And the thing is, it’s our loss.
I happen to believe the stories of challenged athletes are just as noteworthy and moving as the names and faces of those able-bodied athletes whose Olympic journeys are investigated, documented and distributed to the public via mass media. To me, as a person whose body has more in common with Trischa Zorn’s than Jenny Thompson’s, the stories of challenged athletes hold even greater significance. But I wouldn’t even know about Zorn if I hadn’t gone searching online for “disabled” + “swimmer” + “female.” I was looking for someone I could relate to, someone who – like me – loves swimming but – also like me – must overcome the challenges of a disabled body.
I’m too old to launch a Paralympic Games dream of my own but when I read article after article about Trischa Zorn and all of the other differently-abled swimmers training and competing, proving themselves as the elite athletes they are, I couldn’t help my heart from spinning out the silk-fine idea that “If they can do that, maybe I can, too.” We grow so much hope, so much confidence in ourselves and in our abilities – in our potential to actually grasp what we reach for – when we see someone similar to us accomplishing goals we thought were beyond the realm of what’s possible.
There are so many young people who need to discover what I found when I went looking for someone “like me.” They deserve to witness world-class differently-abled athletes overcoming adversities and competing for those coveted spots on national teams, on medal podiums. All kids, regardless of ability, deserve to have their hearts sing out that message of possibilities, that dream-builder of an idea: If someone like me can do it, then I can do it.
The world – the one we live in and the one reflected in the media – maintains a close-up on the beautiful, which is almost-always synonymous with being able-bodied. The “message of possibilities” can be so hard to come by when you have a disability. The dearth of that message can be a far greater burden to one’s mind and heart than any disability covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Quick, name one person from any year on People’s most beautiful list who is disabled. What? No name on the tip of your tongue? Yeah, I know. Our culture worships the beautiful, the whole and abled of mind and body. And yet our country wasn’t founded or our constitution crafted with the the goal of all citizens being beautiful or able-bodied or brilliantly minded. We planted seeds for equality.
But what are we growing?
If you look at a list of the world’s top swimmers – go ahead, Google and then pick a list, any list – Trischa Zorn is not named. Swimming World Magazine, in its annual list of best swimmers worldwide, has never included a single disabled swimmer as far as I can ascertain. If you’re a child with a love of swimming, who happens to be limited by a disability, what must it mean to take note of the fact that the athletes best known in the sport you love are all able-bodied?
I imagine it might feel akin to being a child of color who dreamed about becoming president before President Obama was elected into office. Sure, his parents and teachers, maybe some other people he knew told him that it was possible, because, well, anything’s possible. But until a man with skin the same color as that boy’s was actually elected president of these United States, he didn’t know – really know – that his dream could come true.
I dream of a world where we hold our differently-abled athletes in as high esteem as we hold our athletes without disabilities. A United States of America where we put into practice the equality of all citizens that we, as a nation, claim to epitomize. I want evidence of this equality in the media, in our communities and schools, in our living rooms and at our kitchen tables, in our tweets and updates and blogs, in our water cooler conversations, our “I want to be like ___”s.
I dream of a world where accomplished athletes with disabilities – without sight or hearing, without all of their limbs or “normal” IQs – are famous, publicly lauded and held up as deserving role models. Trischa Zorn would be mentioned as often as Michael Phelps and Jenny Thompson. Missy Franklin, hailed as our new favorite female swimmer, would be interviewed alongside Jessica Long, who just set her sixth world record when she shaved more than a second off her time in the women’s 200 IM Paralympic trials. Mallory Weggemann, who made her Games debut in London, also set a world record in those trials. In the world I’m dreaming of, we’d all hear the story of why Weggemann claims the sport of swimming has saved her.
I dream of a world where the medals earned in the Paralympic, Special Olympic and Deaflympic Games are afforded the exact same value, admiration and envy as the medals earned in the Olympic Games. Networks and sponsors, everyone, would agree and respond accordingly. Televisions broadcast the Games and medal ceremonies of all of our champions. We read about the results in our morning newspapers and online, because the results are newsworthy. Athletes with disabilities appear on boxes of cereal, which fly off the shelves. Nike and Mizuno, Arena and Speedo battle to sponsor athletes with disabilities; organizations and corporations vie for commercial time during broadcasts of the Games.
I dream of a world where we, as a global community, would bear witness to the competitive events as they unfold, showing up to represent, traveling to foreign countries just to be a part of, to witness, history in the making. We’d stand in line and buy tickets to fill the stands, wearing T-shirts and carrying posters emblazoned with the names of our favorites, whose faces and stats and stories we know by heart. We’d wait by the sidelines for autographs. Some of the autographs would be auctioned on ebay, and the traffic caused by the bidding would stagger the website, causing computer screens to freeze mid-navigation.
If we couldn’t attend the Paralympics/Deaflympics/Special Olympics in person, we’d watch from home, eager and anxious for our heroes to do well, devoted to living every second of the journey from starts to finish lines and wall-touches, our emotions roller-coastering with the dashed hopes of near misses and the exaltations of long-awaited triumphs. We’d follow the interviews by Matt Lauer and Brian Williams, Bob Costas, Ryan Seacrest and Meredith Vieira. There would be journalists with disabilities, some of whom would be former Paralympic/Deaflympic/Special Olympic champions. We’d revel in each chapter of the stories, every obstacle overcome, in awe of what a body can accomplish when the dream is big and the spirit is willing.
As cameras zoom in on the expressions of exhaustion, utter defeat and unmatched, unmitigated elation, we’d be holding in our collective breath, holding up the hopes of a nation, and holding our hearts out to those competitors who’ve given years of agonizing training and injuries, every ounce of effort and will they possess to make their dreams of competing as champions in the world’s elite, multi-sport events come true.
Take some time to check out the beautiful faces of the Paralympics and Deaflympics and Special Olympics. Read about their journeys and share their stories; maybe even e-mail your local news, the Today Show and Letterman. Tweet Cooper, Morgan, Fallon and Ferguson, tell them you’d love to see them interview your new favorite swimmer/runner/cycler/archer/etc. Go crazy, contact your favorite reality shows and advocate more people with disabilities be represented; consider the awareness raised when Charla was on The Amazing Race. I’ve never loved Phil Keoghan more than when he choked up at her elimination.
Remember the names of your new favorite, phenomenal, differently-abled athletes and, more importantly, speak their names. As inspiration to others. And to yourself, too. As a reminder of what’s possible.
Let’s create a global community where any swim-loving, competition-leaning kid would encounter the story of Trischa Zorn and say to her dream-making self, Wow, I want to be a champion swimmer just like her!
Mark Damiani said:
Denise may I have your permission to print this and pin it up on my Physical Education Bulletin Board at the school where I work? BTW thank you for writing it.
Mark, thanks for taking the time to read it. Of course you can print it out and post it. Please, share away; thanks for being an educator and advocate!
I wonder how you feel about Pistorius…you don’t mention him. I mean, it is interesting all the notoriety he is getting, and some of the blowback because he is trying to break into the world of the “normal” athletes…
Also! I just saw this ad on TV: http://youtu.be/jpFrYaL6N2w Coca-cola ad featuring Jessica Long 🙂
Your point still stands, by the way, but maybe it is improving, slowly but surely…
Question: do you think we’d all know Pistorius’ name if he were competing in the Paralympics instead of the Olympics?
I don’t think so, and that’s a shame. His story is that of a champion, and he is inspiring millions of people, regardless of their bodies’ level of “ability” or “disability.”
I love Pistorius and I’m a *huge* believer of athletes with disabilities being included in mainstream sporting events. I had to put forth quite the one-woman advocacy campaign for inclusion, myself. I’m the 1st challenged athlete to use a foot-powered recumbent trike as reasonable accommodation for a disability (MS) in the NYC Marathon (2010 & 2011).
I fought long and hard for the right to be included (and my disability accommodated) not just for myself and my own dream of participating in the NYC Marathon, but also to open that door – to set the precedent – so that others would be able to come through the door after me. Like the 1st person using a prosthesis, the 1st wheelchair racer and handcyclist, I made a little piece of history and made it possible for other challenged athletes to have the same inclusion/accommodation without having to fight for it the way I did. So far nobody else has taken advantage of the door I opened. But it remains open and waiting for someone and their 3 wheels to ride on through. One day there will be a fleet of recumbent trikes in NYC and other marathons, and nobody will remember a time when that wasn’t the case. That will be a fabulous day!
Personally, I think the reason no one else has shown up in the NYC Marathon w/a recumbent trike is because my little piece of history-making, the unprecedented feat I accomplished, didn’t get any attention from the media. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying, I can assure you. I wasn’t seeking news and daytime talk show and late night coverage to be “famous” or to have my ego stroked. What I wanted – and still desperately desire – is to raise awareness about challenged athletes, and about recumbent trikes, specifically. The two things that have mitigated the effects of multiple sclerosis in my day-to-day life the most are my mobility assistance dog and riding a recumbent trike. I believe so many people’s lives would be changed for the better if they only knew about the difference recumbent trikes can make. My fondest hope was that with some media coverage during the NYC Marathon, someone might see me pedaling away on my recumbent trike towards the finish line and have one of those, “If she can do it, then I can too” A-ha moments. I want others with disabilities to know the joy, independence and freedom that I find when I ride; I want others with disabilities to experience their bodies as powerful and athletic, to know what it feels like to generate real speed with their own lungs and muscles, courage and endurance.
We need more inclusion of challenged athletes in mainstream sports and elite competitive events, yes. We also need the public, sponsors and the media to take notice of and to support events dedicated specifically to challenged athletes.
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