Going for Gold: The Remarkable Paralympian Spirit
by Michelle Boulton
Both Mike Bacon and Amy Alsop faced challenges that would have intimidated many, but neither would concede to limitations. They met life head-on, never doubting they could achieve their goals.
Amy was born in 1978 with a condition that affected her vision. The extent of her disability went undetected until she began kindergarten. Her vision problem, though never accurately diagnosed, was uncorrectable.
In spite of her disability, Amy was endowed with determination and an unmistakable sense of purpose. From a very early age, she knew she wanted to get a university education and she knew she wanted to play sports. Her level of success, however, has impressed even her.
"I always loved sports, and I participated in as many as I possibly could," says Amy. Although her visual limitations often got in her way with many conventional sports, this changed in 1993 when she discovered goalball, a game developed specifically for visually impaired athletes. Since then, she's played her way to the gold-medal podium at the Paralympics in Sydney in 2000 and again in Athens last year. "For me to participate in sports at this level is an absolute dream come true," she says.
Alsop makes a diving play during a spirited game of goalball.
Mike Bacon followed a different road to the Paralympics, but he is equally tenacious. In 1983, at 18 years old, Mike was "performing for the girls" when he dove into a lake and broke his neck. After months of recovery, he left the hospital a quadriplegic.
Undeterred, Mike simply re-evaluated his goals and moved on with his life. "I've always been stubborn," he admits. "I never listened to the people who tried to tell me what I wouldn't be able to do after my injury. I just figured out a way to get it done."
His list of accomplishments is impressive. He completed an honours degree in physiological psychology at the U of S, started an accessibility consultancy called AccessExperts, and qualified as a Saskatchewan Human Rights commissioner. He continues to pursue interests like big game hunting and scuba diving, and is one of the top wheelchair rugby players in the world - Mike's team finished fourth in Sydney and won silver at the 2004 Games in Athens.
Wheelchair rugby is not a game for the faint of heart. Anyone who is familiar with conventional rugby should not be surprised that wheelchair rugby is a full-contact sport.
It was invented in Winnipeg in 1976 by four quadriplegics who wanted to play sports, but found conventional paraplegic sports weren't "quad friendly." They originally called it "murder ball" due to the aggressive nature of the game.
Played on a regulation basketball court, wheelchair rugby consists of four eight-minute quarters. Four players from each team pass a volleyball back and fourth while advancing into the opposition's half court. When they cross the goal line with the ball, they score.
Given the physical nature of the game, players use a specially designed chair that doesn't tip easily. They are strapped in at the feet, knees, waist, and chest "so you don't go flying out of there when you give or receive hits," explains Mike.
"It is hard on the body," he admits. "I've had bursitis on the elbows, a broken finger here and there, and the odd concussion."
So, why would he put himself through all that? "It's guys and their sports," he says. "The injuries are just part of the game."
Amy's sport, goalball, is non-contact, but the fact that all the players are blindfolded "to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator" makes it very challenging. Played on a volleyball court, the object of the game is to score on your opponent's net, which occupies the entire back of the court.
Teams of three stand at each end in front of their net. The two teams exchange the ball in a motion similar to bowling, but with more force. The ball is a little bigger than a basket ball and makes a rattling noise as it travels on the ground so players can detect its position.
All of the markings on the court are tactile so players can feel them with their hands or feet to help them determine their position and the direction they are facing. Each game consists of two ten-minute halves.
Bacon's wheelchair rugby team won the silver medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.
"The game moves very, very fast," says Amy. "While there is no physical contact, I do hit the ground between 45 and 55 times per game."
With two gold medals under her belt, Amy is aware that sports for people with disabilities, even the elite ones, still exist in relative obscurity. "Over the past ten years, the media coverage of the Paralympics has made such a big difference. It's still not to the level of the Olympic Games, but it has certainly come a long way," she says.
Growing up, she was not aware of sports for people with her kind of disability. Amy was integrated into the public school system and was not really connected to the blind community.
"I got picked on a lot," she explains good-naturedly. "I'm really glad things have changed for kids now, but I don't look back at that time negatively. A lot of it helped to make me stronger, and I'm pretty happy with the way I turned out."
For Amy, goalball provided unconditional acceptance. "It didn't matter that I was blind, and no one had to make an exception because I was blind; that was just the way it was for everyone there," she says. "It gave me a whole lot more confidence."
Grateful for her own experiences, Amy does her part to expose other visually impaired children to the benefits of sport. She loves going into schools and volunteering at Saskatchewan Blind Sports Association summer camps.
"Kids with visual disabilities get to learn a new game that they can take back to their schools and actually participate in," she says. "They also get an opportunity to see that blind people can compete athletically at this level. They see that I have gone through high school and finished a commerce degree at university, and they recognize that they can do it too."
Mike believes the world is becoming a friendlier place for people with disabilities. "It seems that more and more people know someone with a disability these days. People aren't getting stuck in care homes as much anymore."
In addition to his work as an accessibility consultant, Mike volunteers as a speaker for Think First, a brain and spinal cord injury awareness program. He goes into the schools and talks to kids about being safe. "Hopefully they will be careful when they are diving into a lake, or wear their seatbelts, or keep their bike helmets on," he says.
Mike is also a peer counselor for people with new spinal cord injuries, but he has no interest in becoming a practising psychologist. His own determination to take life on the chin can make him a little impatient with people who feel sorry for themselves. "I'm not a good one to sit there and listen to people whine, and that's not a good characteristic for a psychologist. I would want to reach across the table and give them a shake."
For now, Mike is focused on the World Championships next year, and he would love to hold out for the 2008 Paralympics. But after a 20-year athletic career, he recognizes that he won't be able to play rugby forever. He imagines himself either returning to full-time consultancy or perhaps pursuing a career in human rights.
Amy, a self-proclaimed spotlight junkie, would love to put her marketing degree to work as an events coordinator. The Canadian Paralympics Committee made Amy one of the 12 spokespersons selected to promote the Paralympics and build momentum for the games.
"I'm not much of a sales person, but I love the communications end of marketing and public relations," she says. Amy's passionate about working with people and really shines in front of a crowd. "If you can't see the people in the crowd, it doesn't really matter if they're yawning," she jokes.