Russian and Filipino Paralympians embrace sisterhood at Lakeshore Foundation

By Brian Canever, Center for Sport, Pece, & Society September 07, 2016

When it comes to the disability sport movement in the United States, there are few organizations as highly distinguished for their contributions as the Lakeshore Foundation. From the average citizen to the Paralympian, Lakeshore is defined by a more than 30-year passion for using sports to make the world a better place.

Founded in Birmingham, Alabama in 1984, the organization serves children, adults, military veterans, and high-performance athletes of all abilities with top-notch sports programs, including wheelchair basketball, boccia, cycling, wheelchair softball, and archery. In 2003, Lakeshore was the first facility to be named U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The U.S. quad rugby team that will compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympics is based in Birmingham for the purpose of using Lakeshore as its main training facility.

For three weeks in the spring, Lakeshore partnered with the U.S. Department of State to serve as a mentorship site for two Paralympic medalists selected for the GSMP: Sport for Community. As part of the program, CEO and President Jeff Underwood and Chief Program Officer Beth Curry worked with multiple-time Paralympians Adeline Dumapong of the Philippines and Olesya Vladykina of Russia (Lakeshore had also previously partnered with the U.S. Department of State  in 2015 to host a delegation of Pakistani youth female athletes for the Empowering Women and Girls through Sports initiative).

Adeline and Olesya at Lakeshore Foundation

Adeline Dumapong and Olesya Vladykina were mentored by two of the Lakeshore Foundation’s key leaders

“When Adeline and Olesya arrived we were so excited and curious,” Beth said. “They are both so well regarded within the Paralympic movement and they’re both motivated to use their platform as athletes to help the movement in their countries. Since coming to Lakeshore, they’ve also broadened their scope to not just raising elite athletes, but really supporting activity, fun, sport, and play for people with disabilities at all levels.”

Lakeshore’s mission is to change the low expectations given to people with disabilities by society, and to empower this community by raising the bar so they can celebrate their accomplishments together. This purpose resonates directly with Adeline’s story.

Born to a family in a mountainous rural village in the Philippines, Adeline was raised in an institution after contracting polio at the age of three. She could have never imagined traveling the world and becoming the first and only Filipino medalist in Paralympic history with her bronze medal win at the Sydney Games. But the course of her life changed because one person believed in her and introduced her to powerlifting.

“As a child, sport was my escape,” Adeline said. “As I got older, it became my refuge when life was hard. I can say that it really made me the person I am today. And I’ve always wanted to impact people’s lives. Sport is the way I’ve discovered I can do it. I know that I am a role model and I consider it my responsibility and an honor to spread sport in my country.”

With the assistance of her mentors, Adeline developed Operation: Learn, Lead, Play with the mission of growing Paralympic sports through a three-fold approach that includes mentoring current athletes to become advocates in their communities, educating local leaders on the value of inclusive sports, and leading adaptive sports and recreation workshops across the country. Competing in her fifth and final Games in Rio, Adeline plans to focus entirely on achieving these goals in her influential role with the National Paralympic Committee.

During the program, Adeline and Olesya became "like sisters" in Olesya's words

During the program, Adeline and Olesya became “like sisters” in Olesya’s words

While she acquired her disability later in life, Olesya’s story of overcoming adversity to become a two-time gold medalist in swimming has served as motivation for a generation of Russian children with disabilities to believe they can also reach new heights. A successful swimmer since childhood, she quit the sport as a teenager to focus on university and adult life before tragedy brought her back to the pool.

“When celebrating my 20th birthday in Thailand, I had a bus accident and lost my best friend and my arm,” Olesya said. “In that hospital in Bangkok, I decided I would swim again. Within five months, I was at the Beijing Paralympics holding up a gold medal. Because of sport I am alive. Without swimming, I don’t know where I’d be. Sport gives you the character, strength, and focus to move forward even when you don’t see a way.”

Olesya will launch Water Knows No Boundaries as a campaign to promote inclusive swim programs for children around the country. Through this campaign, she will using swimming to promote healthy lifestyles for people regardless of age, disability, gender, and social status, as well as a platform from which to advocate for inclusion and accessibility of sports facilities in Russia.

Despite only spending three weeks together, the bonds formed between Jeff, Beth, Adeline, and Olesya were very strong. In Beth’s words, “Adeline and Olesya are part of our extended family now. They’ve truly won our hearts.”

Olesya, took it one step further when referring to her relationship with Adeline: “I tell Adeline everyday that I am so happy we’re together. We’re not just two Paralympians, we’re sisters.”

Now this new family of changemakers enters the world to change it for the better. From Alabama to Russia, down to the Philippines and across to Brazil, there is no doubt the impact the work these four mentors and emerging leaders do will continue to break barriers, set new expectations, and spark a more promising future for people of all abilities.

View more photos and quotes from our visit to Lakeshore Foundation to see Adeline, Olesya, Jeff, and Beth on Facebook (link)