Paralympians 'Dream, Drive, Do' In London

Sep 7, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 4:04 pm

Team USA wheelchair sprinter Anjali Forber-Pratt may have won two bronze medals at the Beijing Paralympics, but she told NPR's Michel Martin that competing in London this year has blown her away.

"Oh my goodness, the stadium itself is just unbelievable," she said. "There's about 80,000 fans, and everyone is just genuinely excited to support all of the athletes here. It's surreal."

Forber-Pratt says that the sound from the stadium carries a mile away to where the athletes live. "Whenever there's a U.K. athlete ... you can actually hear the roar of the crowd," she laughs.

Forber-Pratt was paralyzed from the waist down when she was a toddler. She grew up in Natick, Mass., which happens to be the eight-mile marker of the Boston Marathon.

"For me being a young 5-year-old, I saw people in racing wheelchairs, particularly, Jean Driscoll, go whizzing by, going 25 miles per hour," says Forber-Pratt. "It opened my eyes to the world of possibility that was out there, and this life that I could live."

She started "bothering" her parents for a racing wheelchair of her own, and got her start through local organizations that offered programs for kids with disabilities. "My career took off from there," she says.

When asked what life-lessons she has learned from competing in sports, Forber-Pratt points to her own personal motto, "Dream. Drive. Do," and particularly to the word "Drive."

"Whether I'm competing in a longer race or a shorter race, we all have those tough days when ... it's a struggle to have everything come together," she says.

Forber-Pratt says that drive and determination certainly translate to other aspects of her life: She recently completed a Ph.D.

"Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius of South Africa made a big impact on many people watching the Olympics and the Paralympics. When asked whether competition like this changed the attitudes of people without disabilities, Forber-Pratt says, "I think it opens people's eyes to realizing what is possible. Disability or not, we're all athletes here competing."

She says that Pistorius' legacy is putting a spotlight on the Paralympic movement.

"I think that's superexciting and we thank Oscar, and we thank all his competitors and some of my fellow Team USA athletes who are on the track with him, too," she says.

Forber-Pratt is competing in the 400-meter final on Saturday and is excited about an invitation to the White House to meet fellow Olympians and Paralympians.

She acknowledges that there has been progress in the way the London Games have been covered this year, but looks "forward to the day there'll be even more coverage of the Paralympics back home."

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Switching gears now, a summer of sporting excellence is drawing to a close in London as the Paralympics end on Sunday. This year, athletes with a range of disabilities came from more than 160 nations to compete in sports like blind soccer or sitting volleyball, making it the biggest Paralympics game since they were first held in 1960.

Now, the Paralympics may not have been widely televised here in the U.S., but the village was full, and observers say the atmosphere was electric. We wanted to hear more about the games, so we called a member of Team USA. Wheelchair racer Anjali Forber-Pratt is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations on everything so far.

ANJALI FORBER-PRATT: Oh, thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I should mention that this wasn't your first Olympics. You won two bronze medals at the Beijing Paralympics. And in these games, you've competed in the 100 meters the 200 meters, and you have one more race, the 400 meters, tomorrow. But I do have to ask, you know, what it's like when you kind of enter that stadium for the first time to compete at this level.

FORBER-PRATT: Oh, my goodness. The stadium itself is just unbelievable. There's about 80,000 fans, and everyone's just genuinely excited to support all of the athletes here. And it's just - it's surreal, you know, to enter into the stadium and to hear the roar of the crowd. Something interesting was when we pull up at the warm-up track, and even where we're living here in the athletes' village, whenever there's a U.K. athlete who's in a particular race, you can actually hear the roar of the crowd from both the warm-up track and where I live.

MARTIN: From where you live? You can hear it all the way from where you live?


FORBER-PRATT: Yeah. We're about a mile away, and I'm telling you, you can hear the roar of the crowd.

MARTIN: Now for many people, for many sports fans, watching the South African runner Oscar Pistorius was kind of a revelation because he's competed in both the Paralympics and the Olympics that we watched earlier. You've been paralyzed from the waist down since you were just a little girl. Can you tell us what got you started in sports?

FORBER-PRATT: Yeah, you know, for me, I was actually - I grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in Natick, and that happens to be the eight-mile marker of a huge sporting event called the Boston Marathon, which I'm sure many of our listeners have heard about.

And for me, being a young five-year-old, I saw people in racing wheelchairs, particularly Jean Driscoll, go whizzing by going 25 miles per hour. And it opened my eyes to the world of possibility that was out there and this life that I could live, disability and all.

And so I started bothering my parents, because I really wanted to try that and get one of those shiny racing wheelchairs for myself. And I got involved with a Saturday sports clinic, and it was through a local organization, such as Disabled Sports USA and Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA, which offer community-level programming for kids with disabilities. And that was how I got my first start, and my career took off from there.

MARTIN: You know, people often - when we talk about sports for whoever, for the able-bodied or for people with disabilities - we often talk about the spillover from competing in sports to other aspects of your life. Has that been true for you? Is there something that you think you've learned from sports or something that's affected your life from participating in sports at a high level that you think you would not have learned otherwise?

FORBER-PRATT: Absolutely. I mean, I think that the lessons are 10-fold, both on and off the track. I think for me personally, my own motto in life is dream, drive, do. And for me, the particular part about the drive, you know, what I've learned in sport is, you know, whether I'm competing in a longer race or a shorter race, we all have those tough days, you know, those days when things are just - it's a struggle to have everything come together, or those long days at practice or in the gym.

And that certainly translates over into life. I just recently completed my Ph.D., and you better believe that there were long days throughout my process of dissertation writing and, you know, meeting all of those milestones. And I think that that's just one example, where that drive and determination, but really just staying focused on that end goal, which I do so much so in my sport, certainly translates to other aspects of my life.

MARTIN: Do you think that able-bodied people watching athletes with disabilities changes the way they think about it? I know that Oscar Pistorius made a big impact on a lot of people watching the Olympics. It just was something that doesn't seem to have occurred to a lot of people. You know what I mean? It just seemed to kind of change people's mindset.

I don't know. What about you? Do you think that when people see you compete who do not have a disability, do you think that it changes their attitudes in some way?

FORBER-PRATT: I think it does. I mean, I think it also just goes to - it goes to open people's eyes to realizing what is possible. You know, disability or not, we're all athletes here competing for gold, silver, bronze, you know, fighting for the same world records. And I think that that's really what Oscar's sort of legacy has been, is it's drawn attention to this entire movement of Paralympic sport.

You know, the Paralympics, it's the second-largest sporting event in the world. And I'm here with, you know, over 4,000 athletes with disabilities. And the fact that, you know, everything that Oscar has done has drawn attention to just how big the Paralympic movement truly is. And I think that's super-exciting. And we thank Oscar, and we thank all of his competitors and, you know, some of my fellow Team USA athletes who were on the track with him, too.

MARTIN: Do you wish they were more widely publicized at home?

FORBER-PRATT: Absolutely, I do. I mean, I think that, you know, this particular year, we've made some progress, and certainly by being able to chat with you here today. And there's been some more coverage online and also through NBC Sports. And I think that that's a huge step in the right direction.

I certainly do look forward to the day that there'll be even more coverage, though, of the Paralympics back home.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?


FORBER-PRATT: Well, something exciting is that the Olympians and Paralympians have an invitation to the White House, and so I'll be taking advantage of that and getting to meet my fellow Olympians and Paralympians from other sports down at our nation's capital. And then I'm also taking a personal trip to New Mexico just to kind of decompress from it all and start to figure out those next steps and my next goals.

MARTIN: Well, as mentioned, we're going to let you go because we know you've got another race tomorrow, and so make us proud.

FORBER-PRATT: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Anjali Forber-Pratt is a wheelchair sprinter. We caught up with her at the Paralympics in London. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

FORBER-PRATT: Thank you, and please tune in for my race tomorrow, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.