Friday, May 30, 2014

Lessons I Learned At The Empire State Games: Reflecting on Seventeen Amazing Competitions

Today I participated in my seventeenth Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged, and because I am now twenty- one years old, it was my last competition as an athlete. For those of you who do not know, this event, affectionately called the ESGs, is a series of athletic competitions for people of all levels with all types of physical disabilities. They include wheelchair races, walker races, and wheelchair basketball games. What makes it unique is that one need not be a trained or competitive adaptive athlete to take part; for many of us, it’s just about fun. But the important part is we are given the chance to compete, with people of similar physical abilities, a rarity for many of us, especially those who attend a mainstream school. The Games are about us, people with disabilities, who have both the right to win and the right to lose.
While the outcomes of the competitions do not matter at all, there is something beautiful in having the chance to lose in addition to the chance to win. It means we have been included in an authentic competition, rather than relegated to a contest where we either cannot play due to our disabilities or are given the stock patronizing speech that "everyone is a winner". Too often, when it comes to recreational activities for people with disabilities, this speech is given as if we need to be protected from the ordinary possibility of losing a race. Winning and losing is part of life, as a person with a disability can clearly understand, based on the societal obstacles presented to us on a daily basis. It helps us learn, to celebrate when we win, and, if we are taught correctly, to celebrate even when others win. So no, it doesn't matter if you win or you lose, but it sure feels good to have the chance to do either. When both options exist, it means you truly competed.
However, in the years that have passed since I ran my first race at the age of five, I have learned a lot of things far beyond the context of the competition. The races and their outcomes are but a small, small part of the sweet lessons I learned here. To look around, is to see people of so many different varieties, coming together, united by the disability experience. Here, we have shed the stereotype that being a member of this group must mean the end of the world. Be here for a minute, and it is extraordinarily clear that it is not the end of the world, but instead, an opportunity to experience a part of it that so many other people will never know or appreciate.
It is here that I have some of my earliest memories of being at peace with my body. I relished in the strange joy of seeing other people whose long, spindly fingers were always tensed, as if all the energy of the universe were constantly pulsing through them. Other people whose thumbs were tucked snugly between their middle and ring fingers. Other people whose legs shot out into spastic excitement when seeing a friend, or whose inner emotions were a secret only for a few moments, before being given away by an unruly arm or foot. I remember as a small child being so excited to see that other people "like me" were out there, and to be in a place where our quirks were something ordinary, or even something of which we could be proud. I still get that feeling sixteen years later. I am "OK” this way. The thousands of TV shows, magazines, plays, books, and posters that are yet to feature a person that looks like me cannot steal the value of who and what I am. My story is visible here, and the world, so often allowed to make it invisible, must look. The thing is, if they really look, they will not at all see what they have been taught to expect. They will not see people who want medals for existing, or people who can only see grief in that which they have been dealt. They will see people, whose circumstances are perhaps extraordinary to some, doing ordinary things. Being happy. Being proud. Being who they are, both in spite of, and because of, a disabled body marked by “otherness” in the eyes of society. That is what I learned in seventeen years of taking part, and I hope other people will continue to learn the same. As I crossed the finish line for the last time, my five-year-old self and every self along the way was alive in me again. When I looked out at the crowd today and saw hundreds of younger children, who hobbled with my familiar gait in tiny walkers and butterfly braces, my heart was warm. I was inspired. But not for the usual reasons. Not because I wanted to call them “inspirational” for doing what other kids have the chance to do by default. Not because a kid on a walker running a race is brave, or because I found the nearby clown accosting us with stickers to be very funny. But because I was smiling back at my younger self, telling them, and telling the child I once was, that they were going to be okay. That it was okay. That living disabled would never be easy, but that it could be good. That the vessels that carry their spirits are not broken, and that they should always be proud.

Next year, in “my retirement” from the Games, I hope to volunteer with the rest of my “geriatric” friends who have aged out, and happily give the magic to other kids, while we cackle about the steady decline of our aching joints and our hamstrings that probably resemble stretched out rubber bands, a dark comedy show all our own. But more than that I look forward to seeing the next generation find out who they are, laugh at the absurdities of the crowded track, scan the price tent for ironies like a Twister Board, and make a skit character of the seemingly legless stuffed bear with a cone on its head at the mini golf course. I look forward to seeing them grow into smart, funny, witty, and proud people, unafraid to be sculpted by life, in spite of and because of their disabilities.
To find out more about the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged (Victory Challenge), see the following link:

Below is an essay I wrote in 11th grade, inspired by watching my shadow along the track. It still speaks to me today.
"Even my shadow is different. The small outline of my figure perches on the silhouette of my six-wheeled ride, moving in a slow, crooked, asymmetrical dance. Moving through life this way is indescribably natural. With one slightly twisted hand resting on a well-loved joystick, I navigate my vessel from my own vantage point, somewhere below the world’s eyes and above its sneakers. This is my perspective, a window through which the colors of a vibrant culture glimmer. At times it is difficult for others to see the light that shines through my window everyday, difficult for them to understand what satisfaction could lie in an existence that is on the surface marked by the things society calls abnormal. I see these things as just ordinary, because for me, quite simply, that is what they are.
I am so much more than my disability. I am deep in my thoughts and rich in my desires, so many of which are shared, so many of which draw me into the essence of what it is to be human. But the elements of me that venture past “normal” matter and they always will. I love the soft buzz and click of my twenty-four volt battery; on a busy street where the sounds of creation converge, I know that I fit, that the rhythm inside of me is strong and rare and worthy. 

It is when I watch my shadow, untamed and free along the sunlit earth that I am most aware of beauty. With a variety that places us in the company of butterflies, we are brilliant and glorious and essential to each other. It is the light shared between us that allows our shadows to dance."

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