Ecuador Paralympics President mentored at U.S. Association of Blind Athletes

By Brian Canever, Center for Sport, Peace, & Society September 09, 2016

For the past 40 years, the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes has existed to provide life-changing opportunities to the blind and people with visual impairments. Only a short drive from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Trainer Center in Colorado Springs, where hundreds of national and international athletes train for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, USABA was also recently the mentorship site for Bayron Lopez, president of the Ecuador Paralympic Committee, during the GSMP: Sport for Community program.

Already a mentor in the first edition of Sport for Community, managed by Partners of the Americas, the organization’s executive director, Mark Lucas, welcomed Bayron with open arms. For two decades, Mark has played a key role in USABA’s efforts to develop and promote athletics, skiing, judo, powerlifting, goalball and other sports for the blind at both the Paralympic and grassroots level. He places a similar value on mentorship and its potential to create long-lasting positive change.

Mark Lucas has served in the disability sport movement for more than two decades, a perfect match for an emerging leader like Ecuador's Bayron Lopez

Mark Lucas, Bayron Lopez, and Dr. Sarah Hillyer talk about empowering people with disabilities in USABA’s offices. Mark has served in the disability sport movement for more than two decades

“Since I graduated college at Ohio State I’ve had incredible opportunities to be a mentor,” Mark said. “I ran a summer camp in Malibu, California and I recruited staff from all over the world, teaching them how to work with the blind and visually impaired and how to treat people with respect. I’ve mentored girls playing softball for the first time, and taught them lessons that apply in the classroom and in life, too. I’ve tried to be a mentor and a role model for my 20 years at USABA. There’s some pressure and expectations to it. But I think it’s part of my calling on earth to help people like Bayron become better, more effective leaders.”

Mark’s versatility and optimism has been hugely influential for Bayron, a former champion wheelchair racer with a range of interests from developing Paralympic sport to providing disaster relief in areas affected by the earthquake that struck Ecuador last April. As the president of the NPC, Bayron plays a key role in supporting elite-level athletes as they try to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games. Bayron is familiar with this journey, as he also had his sights set on competing at the London Games. But, looking back to a younger version of himself − the teenager in a wheelchair who after losing hope found new life when he strapped into a racing chair − he knows there is also immeasurable impact in grassroots sports development.

“I’ve won a lot of medals in my career, but I also know how important it is for your confidence, health, and your ability to make new friendships to just get out there and play,” Bayron said. “I’ve been involved in the Paralympic movement for four years, but my time at USABA showed me there is much information I still need in order to reach more people and get them involved, especially with the accessibility and socioeconomic challenges that we face, which keeps a lot of people inside.”

Mark and Bayron became close friends and colleagues over three weeks

Standing outside Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Mark and Bayron became close friends and colleagues over three weeks

With Mark’s support, Bayron developed No Fears, No Limits, a multi-step plan to use inclusive sports activities as a means of serving the disabled community in the Manabí and Esemeraldas provinces, which were devastated by the earthquake and its aftermath. In addition to leading coaching workshops and establishing government and private partnerships to support his activities, Bayron will work on establishing at least one Paralympic sports club in both provinces within the next year and creating Ecuador’s first national sitting volleyball league by 2018.

“Through sport, I’ve realized that there’s a lot I can do to help others,” Bayron said. “I know there are disabled people in my country who don’t know their capacity and what they can achieve. That’s why I’m here. I want to give these people the tools and support so they can also pay it forward to other people in their lives. Right now, there may be only one Bayron Lopez, but in the next year I want to see hundreds of Bayrons doing the same thing.”

Mark will play a big part in Bayron’s work, and the two will reconnect in Rio next September for the Paralympic Games. On top of the grassroots work in Manabí and Esmeraldas, Mark also offered Bayron the opportunity to serve as a regional representative for blind sport in South America, guaranteeing the pair will partner together to touch more lives for many years to come.

“This is a lifetime friendship,” Mark said. “And we’re not just friends, but also colleagues. We learn from each other. Bayron can see what I’ve done over the past 30 years and I can watch him grow in five, 10, and 20 years after I’m done. I know that he will not only excel in Ecuador, but eventually in all of South America.”

View more photos and quotes from the Center’s visit to USABA to see Bayron and Mark on Facebook (link)