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The Paralympic Journey

Aaron Baker
Spinal Cord Injury Lifestyle Specialist | Shield HealthCare
03/15/21  12:30 PM PST
The Paralympic Journey: Aaron Baker with his Mother

A Quest For Purpose, Performance & Gold

THE MOST IMPORTANT thing in the Paralympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” – Olympic Creed

There are Winter and Summer Paralympic Games that coincide with the Olympics every four years. The six broad categories for competition are: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, wheelchair, vision impairment, and “others.”

“On July 29, 1948, the day of the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games, Dr. Guttmann organized the first competition for wheelchair athletes which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games… The Stoke Mandeville Games later became the Paralympic Games which first took place in Rome, Italy, in 1960 featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries. In 1976, the first Winter Games in Paralympics history were held in Sweden.”

Ten years after my prognosis that I would have a one-in-a-million chance of ever feeding myself again, my mother and I stood in front of the Olympic Training Center’s iconic rings and next to a slogan that read: Amazing Awaits.

That was exactly my mindset in August 2009, three years prior to my goal of racing a special-made trike at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England. I was fresh off of two cross-country bicycle tours and ready to commit myself to the rigors of Olympic training. And by rigors I mean suffering – a whole new level of self inflicted pain. To become an Olympic level athlete one must be willing to eat, sleep, and train day after day and push through self-imposed limits in the mind and body.

I felt ready. I considered the Paralympic Games to be a natural progression from what I had already been doing for the past decade – recovering from a spinal cord injury.

The Olympic Training Center’s hallowed halls were lined with world flags and photos of our history’s greatest athletes. Highlighting moments in time when the world would stop, set aside differences to celebrate human performance. To say the coaches, staff and accomplished athletes were my motivators would be an understatement.

At training days end, athletic stars would sit shoulder to shoulder in the OTC cafeteria. We would share war stories of competitions past, and our plans to shave milli-seconds off of future performances. The common thread between us all, injuries or not, was that we were all there for the same reason – To become our very best.

For three years, with guidance from my coach, I pedaled my heart out. My regiment of six days a week consisted of cycling 30+ miles in the morning, followed by a nap in a hyperbaric chamber, cross-train in the gym in the afternoon and finish with cycling time-trial drills.

In the summer of 2011, it all paid off when I won the Time-Trial National Championships in Augusta, Georgia. My results placed me high up within the team and on paper my performance times were competitive with the International competition.

However, in May 2012, two days prior to me leaving for Rome, Italy to race in the World Cup which was the precursor to the London Games, I fell ill and was rushed to the hospital.

My bladder became infected, distended and nearly ruptured. I laid in the emergency room devastated. I sent photos of myself in hospital to my coach who was already in Rome. “I’m sorry coach, I won’t make it.”

With that, my Paralympic dream was over.

I reconciled rather quickly though. It was the Olympic Creed that reminded me of the epic journey I had been on and the relatable story I could now share. One of sacrifice, expectation and unexpected change of plans. I was grateful and happy about what I had learned.

So, as we tune in this August 24 – September 5, 2021 for the long-awaited Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, just remember, every athlete in attendance performs with all their heart, they have transformed their pain into purpose and live to fight for a golden flight.

For the first time ever NBC will air the Paralympics during prime time. 1,200 hours of programming will be available to watch on NBCSN and the Olympic Channel as well.

Here are a few of my friends to watch:

Tara Llanes – Team Canada – Basketball

She was a professional mountain biker for 15 years, won X-Games Gold, 2 Silver, and 1 Bronze. She was nominated for the 2018 BMX Hall of Fame and was a Singles and Doubles National Tennis Champion in 2017

Mallory Weggemann – Team USA – Swimming

She won a gold and bronze medal at the 2012 London Games. Weggemann became a T10complete paraplegic after an epidural injection in 2008.

Joe Delagrave – Team USA – Wheelchair Rugby

Joe is the only wheelchair rugby player to be named Athlete of the Year for the USQRA, winning the award in 2012 and 2015. He was named best in class 2.0 in the 2014 and 2018 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships

and of course, the entire USA CYCLING TEAM!

WE RISE!

-Aaron

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