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Tales of Glory from the 2018 Paralympics

After the Winter Olympics come to an end, a new set of elite athletes take to the playing fields of ice and snow.

On Friday, March 9, the rhythmic sounds of a drum processional announced the parade of athletes representing 48 nations, along with a neutral delegation of Russians, through Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, in South Korea. One athlete arrived with a torch in his backpack. Han Min-Su, a South Korean sled hockey player with a prosthetic leg, climbed a rope to pass the flame to See Soon-Seok of the South Korean wheelchair curling team, assisted by Kim Eun-Jung, the skip of the South Korea’s silver-medal-winning women’s curling team. The flame they lit, in the same white cauldron that was used the month before to open the Olympic Games, represented the start of a different games: The Winter Paralympics.

Athletes with varying impairments affecting their legs, arms, or vision, compete in the Winter Paralympic games in 80 medal events in six different sports. The sports are all ones you saw some version of during the Winter Olympics—alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, curling, ice hockey, and snowboarding—but with some differences. The skiing events mostly have three categories each: one for athletes who compete while seated, one for athletes who compete while standing, and one for visually impaired athletes who compete with a guide. Ice hockey is played by athletes seated on sleds. Curlers are all in wheelchairs. Just like their Olympic counterparts, Paralympians train vigorously for this moment. (The Paralympic medals are designed with the athletes in mind, with PYEONGCHANG 2018 written in braille on one side.) Though some countries sent more athletes than others—the United States, Canada, and Japan sent the largest delegations this year—the 2018 Paralympics is a reflection of worldwide growth of para sports. With 567 athletes participating, Pyeongchang is the largest Winter Paralympics to date.


Participating in his third Paralympic games, Brian McKeever, 38, became the most decorated Winter Paralympian in Canadian history when he won gold in the 20 km cross-country freestyle race for visually impaired athletes—his 14th medal overall. Already an elite cross-country skier when Stargardt disease caused his vision to decline, McKeever was poised to make history in 2010 as the first athlete named to both the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in the same year, but Canadian coaches made a controversial decision to replace McKeever in the Olympic 50 km cross-country race. This year, he raced athletes up to 20 years his junior, winning three more gold medals to bring his total Paralympic medal count to 16.


A 57-year-old single mother of four daughters, Marie Wright is living out her dream of playing for the Canadian Paralympic curling team. Every athlete competing in the sport has some significant lower-body impairment and uses a wheelchair on the ice. There’s no sweeping involved, but the mixed-gender teams otherwise follow the same rules as those set out by the World Curling Federation and observed at the Winter Games. In Pyeongchang, Wright contributed to her team's near-perfect start, going 3-0 before falling to South Korea and then Great Britain. But this paraplegic grandmother, who lost use of her legs after a 1988 car accident, was able to help her team stage a massive comeback, winning the next six matches to secure a playoff spot, and ultimately, the bronze medal.


North Korea participated in the Winter Paralympics for the first time this year, with two athletes competing in cross-country skiing events. The country, which has a history of mistreating individuals with disabilities, previously sent just one athlete to the 2012 Summer Paralympic games in London and two to the 2016 Rio games. The two skiers, Kim Jong Hyon and Ma You Chol, are both novices at the sport. Unlike during the much-publicized Olympics Opening Ceremony, the North Korean and South Korean Paralympians marched separately at the Paralympic Ceremony on March 9. One athlete apprehensive about running into the North Korean athletes is Choi Kwang-hyouk, a 30-year-old sled hockey player representing South Korea who he defected from North Korea in 2001, a few years after his leg was amputated following a train accident he suffered while living on the streets. “What’s important is that I am wearing the colors of South Korea, not the flag of any other country,” Choi told the Associated Press. “I feel that I have arrived 100 percent.”


Shooting a target between laps of cross-country skiing is difficult enough, but for visually impaired biathlon athletes, this sport presents a different set of challenges. Like many Paralympic sports, there’s a seated, standing, and visually impaired category for each of the three biathlon events: sprint, middle distance, and long distance. Athletes competing in the visually impaired biathlon events, first introduced to the Paralympics in 1992, have special computerized rifles attached to headphones that relay acoustic signals that vary in intensity to indicate how close they are to the target.


On March 13, Americans Dan Cnossen, 37, and Andy Soule, 37, shared a podium, earning silver and bronze medals, respectively, in the middle-distance seated biathlon. Cnossen and Soule are bonded by more than the podium. Both are military veterans who lost legs while serving in Afghanistan. Cnossen, a former Navy SEAL, stepped on an IED in 2009, resulting in two above-the-knee amputations. Soule, a former Army specialist, also underwent a double amputation after an IED detonated near his Humvee shortly after he first deployed in 2005. These wins mark the first time two US men have medaled in biathlon in either the Olympics or the Paralympics. Of the 74 Paralympic athletes on Team USA, 18 are military veterans.


Oksana Masters, 28, an American athlete who has also had a double amputation, competed in six events in cross-country skiing and biathlon in Pyeongchang. Masters is the rare all-around athlete who has also won a Paralympic medal in a summer event—a bronze in rowing, in 2012. She went on to compete in cycling at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Born an orphan in Ukraine with severe physical impairments to her legs, hands, and organs, all thought to be caused by the Chernobyl disaster, Masters was adopted by an American when she was eight. Just a few months ago, she slipped on ice and dislocated her elbow, but even with the injury, she went on to win two gold, two silver, and a bronze medal in seated biathlon and cross-country events in Pyeongchang—an impressive medal haul that landed her the role of US flag-bearer in Sunday’s closing ceremony.

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