Centershots: Real champions

Sophie McDonald
Sports Editor

They did it. They made it to the Olympics despite all the adversity and obstacles thrown in their path.

Displaying courage, persistence and sportsmanship the team should have been celebrated and honored for its great achievement on the world’s stage, but most people don’t know about this exceptional U.S. Olympic team.

You see, they aren’t like most athletes. They don’t have every limb or physical advantage and they don’t have a huge following.

What they do have, however, is heart, grace and a genuine love for their sport and country.

They are the U.S. Women’s Paralympic Volleyball team.

The team doesn’t play standing up or in wheelchairs but instead come to the court, remove their prosthetics and play sitting down. They scoot around on the floor and hit the volleyball over a lowered net to the other side.

The game is played at a much faster pace than the standing volleyball most of America is used to—player reactions have to be quicker and stronger, you have to rely on your teammates more and you must anticipate what’s going to happen before it does.

That strong physical and mental performance on the court creates the courageous appearance of a Paralympic athlete, yet when you look at the women on the Paralympic Team, you don’t just see an injury or notice they have a limb missing, you see how truly beautiful they are on the inside and out.

Their personalities are amazing and the odds they have overcome to get to this place in their lives are as exciting as the game they love.

Take Brenda Maymon and Lora Webster for example, two of the original players from the first Women’s Paralympic Volleyball Team in 2004. I met them during a stay at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 2009 and their inspiring stories continue to touch my heart.

Webster, 20-year-old native of Phoenix, Ariz., developed osteo sarcoma bone cancer at an early age and went through chemotherapy before doctors had to amputate below and then above the left knee. Doctors then rotated the lower leg 180 degrees and reattached it at the thigh. They were able to save the nerves and she has full feeling in her leg.

“I played standing volleyball in high school and because I was the only one in the school who had a prosthetic, they didn’t know how to handle it,” she said. “They would tell me I couldn’t use my (prosthetic) to play because it had metal on it and I would either have to take it off or sit on the bench. I said, ‘but that’s my leg.’ They never really understood.”

Maymon, 21, from Edmond, Okla., had a similar experience in high school but cancer wasn’t the cause of her amputation.

When Maymon was 6 years old, she slid under the blades of a riding lawn mower and severely damaged her leg. The doctors were able to save her leg through the first night but had to amputate the next day.

“I was very self-conscious about it for a long time,” she said. “I would only wear jeans, never shorts. It took a long time to accept it. Now, I don’t care, I wear shorts and capris.”

Webster had the same reservations.

“I still don’t like to wear shorts unless I’m out with my family, then it doesn’t bother me,” she said.

Despite the obstacles, they persevere like the champions they are.

The first Women’s Paralympic Volleyball Camp was held in 2003, but at the time there weren’t many women to choose from to make a Paralympic Team.

“It was all about finding amputees, not necessarily people who could play volleyball, but amputees we could train,” Maymon said. “Our team was only together six months before the ‘04 Olympics in Greece, and we still won the bronze medal.”

Today, the team is large and strong, filled with athletes like Webster and Maymon with stories just as powerful. However, Webster said it’s hard for new team members just like it was hard for her when she first started playing on the team.

“It’s hard to accept that you’re on a Paralympic Team, it’s like everyone is looking at you through a glass cage,” she said.

“Like we’re in a circus,” Maymon added.

Taking the feeling of an outcast and turning it around for the better, the team worked hard to unite and to become the best in their virtually unknown sport, and after only being together six months – they did it. They made it to the Olympics despite all the adversity and obstacles thrown in their path, they won bronze in their first appearance on the world’s stage, only to come back four years later to win silver in the 2008 games.

Displaying courage, persistence and sportsmanship every step of the way, they earned their positions as Olympic athletes. They earned Olympic medals. They earned encouragement and respect. Not only that – they deserve it.

Their story is the representation of thousands like them. Stories of amazing athletes competing at all levels around the world who suffer from physical restrictions they refuse to let stop them.

I believe each of us have self-imposed restrictions which can be more crippling than the injuries these amazing athletes have endured. The question is whether we will allow our restrictions to be a stepping stone or a stumbling block in our journey to reaching our dreams.

May each hurdle you encounter be a platform that propels you to greatness beyond your wildest imaginings.

Contact McDonald.