By Lelainia Lloyd
I have been a diehard fan of the Olympics for years. The first time I became aware that there was another elite sporting event happening in the world called the Paralympics was during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I was intrigued, but unfortunately, the Paralympics hardly merited a mention on the evening news. From that point on, I always wondered what went on there and if it was anything like the Olympics. Did they have Opening and Closing ceremonies? How many countries participated? What sports programs were there for people with disabilities and which ones would be included in Paralympic competition? And most importantly, who were these people and what were their stories? The best part about living in the host city of the 2010 Games was that I was finally able to unravel the mystery.
I was lucky enough to be given tickets to attend the Opening Ceremonies which turned out to be the highlight of the Paralympics for me. When I arrived at the stadium, the crowd of spectators was still riding the high of a fantastic Olympic Games and after a two week break, ready to show their national pride once again.
What happened in that building that night was unforgettable. From the moment the very first team marched and rolled onto the field of play for the Parade of Athletes, a roar went up and everyone was on their feet clapping, cheering and waving their pompoms. This incredible level of enthusiasm was sustained until the very last team had made its way onto the field. It did not matter what country the athletes were from. From the second we welcomed them into the stadium, they were ours, each and every one of them. The outpouring of acceptance and goodwill that I witnessed moved me deeply.
Lelainia holds high the torch as part of the 2010 Paralympic torch relay. She had the honour of carrying it on one of the last legs of the journey – right through downtown Vancouver!
The Opening Ceremonies was a joyous celebration of what is possible. It honoured not only those who had come to compete, but also those whose legacy has helped to shape attitudes towards disability in Canada and the world at large. There were beautiful tributes to both Terry Fox (which brought me to tears) and Rick Hansen and an amazing show which included many performers with physical challenges. All of this was a powerful reminder how much people with disabilities contribute to the world.
During the course of the Games, I learned the answers to so many of the questions I’d had about the Paralympics. Little did I know that by the time the Games were held in my own backyard, I would have one foot in the able-bodied world and one foot in the disabled world, thanks to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, (an incurable, life altering neurological disease) in March 2008.
The 2010 Olympics and Paralympics came just as I was recovering from a series of aggressive treatments to try and get my MS under control and struggling to adjust to a body that was betraying me. When it comes to the Games, there’s a lot of talk about what the lasting legacy will be. Even with all the experts weighing and measure things, I don’t think they can ever really know how far reaching the impact will be. It’s a difficult thing to quantify. For me personally, it was a ray of hope at a time when I most needed one. Seeing Paralympians overcoming adversity and in some cases, seemingly insurmountable odds to live their dreams on a world stage helped me to believe that no matter what happened, I could be okay.
I walked away from the Games with a clearer understanding of disability, accessibility and inclusion and a different perspective on my own future. From there, I began volunteering with the UBC Medical Program, granting interviews with first year medical students to help them have a better understanding of what it’s like to live with chronic illness and disability. I applied to serve on my city’s Universal Access-Ability Advisory Committee, which advises the Mayor and City council on matters of access and inclusion and was accepted. I’ve joined the MS Society’s Peer Support Program through which I help those who are newly diagnosed with MS. I was also recently accepted into a new program at UBC as a Health Mentor where I will be working with future doctors, dentists, social workers, nutritionists, physiotherapists and pharmacists over a period of 16 months, sharing my personal experience on a number of issues related to chronic illness and disability.
The theme of the 2010 Paralympic was “One Inspires Many”. I believe this to be true. The inspiration I gained through the Games changed my life. The fact that I am doing all of these things is a direct result of my Paralympic experience. While I know I will likely never be an athlete, I was inspired to find a way to reframe my MS diagnosed and strive to have it result in something positive. Paralympians, are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They made me realize that the best way to challenge attitudes of what is possible for people with disabilities is to just get out there and show them. Living with a disability doesn’t mean your life is less valuable or meaningful and it certainly doesn’t mean your life is over.
I think that as a country and a host city, we set the bar really high with the example we set for equality and inclusion. I believe our challenge now is to continue that work with the same energy and enthusiasm we showed the world. The goal is to create communities where opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways exist for everyone. My hope is that the momentum achieved here will carry over to London 2012 and beyond and that Para Sport gains the media exposure that it so richly deserves. The world will be watching.