Since he was a boy growing up in Cairo, Ali Abou El Nasr’s life has revolved around soccer. Before he was a player, coach, and advocate, his passion was nurtured watching the best teams in Europe play on television. His favorite was Arsenal, one of England’s most successful soccer clubs.
“When I was 8 years old, my dad bought me my first Arsenal jersey as a gift,” Ali recalls. “You could say that jersey pre-determined my future.”
Although soccer became his favorite sport, Ali’s parents enrolled him and his older brother in a handful of sports at their local club: swimming, karate, judo, handball, volleyball, and basketball. After he was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), sport became a perfect release for his energy.
As a teenager, Ali was offered his first professional soccer contract, but his parents declined the offer and pushed him to instead focus on his education. Ali did exactly what they asked and excelled academically, graduting secondary school at the age of 16. When visiting Scotland, where his brother attended university, he was unexpectedly offered a contract to play for Cowdenbeath FC. Ali accepted the offer, with the support of his family, and simultaneously began a sports management degree at the University of Abertay Dundee.
Struggling with injuries for much of his career in Scotland, Ali transitioned into coaching before finishing his degree in 2013. By that point, he had worked jobs in marketing, business, and soccer development. But, around the time, his life was also changing. His parents divorced, his mother moved to London following the Egyptian revolution, and his half-sister in Cairo was born with a visual impairment. In January 2013, Ali moved back home permanently, where he grew closer to his sister and had an opportunity to take a role in the world of blind soccer.
“When I returned to Egypt I was talking to a friend who was volunteering at a blind center as a fitness coach,” Ali recalls. “I asked him if they offered any football. My friend said that they only did goalball; they didn’t know of a single club in Cairo that did blind football. Since I had my coaching certification from college I said immediately that I wanted to run a program.”
According to statistics from the World Health Organization, 1 million people in Egypt are blind, with 3 million more visually impaired. When Ali began coaching blind soccer he introduced proper equipment and training methods for the first time. It was a big difference for the players, who told him that before they would wrap a ball in a plastic bag and fill it with bells just to play. The spirit and drive of the players moved Ali deeply.
“For the players who had become blind later in life, it was the feeling of returning to something they once loved,” Ali says. “For those who had only listened to football on the radio, you could see their total joy kicking a ball for the first time. Playing put their confidence through the roof because all their lives they’d been told, ‘You’re blind, you can’t play football.’”
In 2014, Ali founded the NGO Blind Football Egypt and organized the country’s first ever blind national team. Since then, he has launched six teams in Cairo with approximately 100 players. In order to financially support their non-profit work, Ali and a business partner launched Cardinal Sports in 2015 as a consulting and development agency. The agency provides statistical data on the Egyptian men’s national team to the soccer federation, collaborates with the Ministry of Sports on grassroots soccer initiatives, and develops innovative sports performance technology.
Ali is on a mission to expand blind soccer throughout Egypt. Since laying the groundwork for the sport in Cairo, he has established important partnerships with the Egyptian Blind Sports Association and key sponsors, including Chevrolet.
During his time at the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Ali was mentored by Skye Arthur-Bannning, an associate professor at Clemson University with an extensive practical and research background in youth sports and adaptive sports development. At the university, home to top-15 NCAA men’s and women’s soccer programs, Sky initiated a tuition-assistance program that allows students with neurological impairments to continue their soccer careers into college. He is also the head of officiating for the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football, refereeing games at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Together, Skye and Ali combined their experiences as leaders and advocates in the world of disability sport to create a plan that paves a prosperous road for blind soccer players in Egypt.
Since she was a young girl in the Estonian capital of Talinn, Keit Jaanimagi understood the value of perseverance.
Born with spina bifida, Keit experienced mobility challenges from birth. As she grew older, she required surgery to correct an issue with her hips. Up until that point, Keit never felt as if she had been treated differently and excelled in school. After the surgery, she gained weight and suffered from increased hip and back pain. Recognizing the importance of physical activity for Keit’s rehabilitation, her mother quickly enrolled her in sports.
“My mom taught me never to give up even if things are really hard and uncomfortable,” Keit says. “I could sit in a wheelchair all day, but every day I learn more how being active gives me independence and makes me into a stronger person.”
Within three years of starting swim courses, Keit’s persistence led to a spot on Estonia’s national team and invites to compete in international swimming tournaments. Since 2004, she has participated in the International Paralympic Committee’s European and World Championships and twice medaled in the 4x50m medley relay at the Nordic Championships. Among her many honors, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Estonian Union of Sports for Disabled in 2006 and 2011.
“For me, swimming is not about medals,” Keit says. “It is about improving my health and being better than yesterday. Swimming has always been easier than walking for me. There is freedom in the pool.”
Keit will never forget competing in her first world championships and seeing so many great swimmers with disabilities gathered in one place. It changed the way she saw the world and motivated her to take a bigger role in the Paralympic movement. While working on her bachelor’s degree in English language and culture from Tallinn University’s Institute of Germanic-Romance Languages and Cultures, she received her coaching certifications and set out to become a disability sport leader in Estonia.
According to the Estonian Human Rights Centre, approximately 138,000 people with disabilities live in the country; many facing significant challenges, including a lack of access to sport. Aside from harsh winters that limit independent movement around cities, a lack of financial support for adaptive sports has resulted in inaccessible facilities, underdeveloped infrastructure, and few programs for children with disabilities. These challenges discourage people with disabilities from believing they can be active members of society.
“It gives the impression that sport is a luxury,” Keit says. “And it is. A person needs to be independent and have great willpower to continue on their own when there are so many challenges that make it hard to participate. But, I believe everyone should be able to play.”
On top of training in swimming six days a week, Keit works part-time as a project manager for the Estonian Paralympic Committee. In this role, she manages inclusion projects with partners, such as Tallinn University and rehabilitation centers. With a lack of properly-trained coaches and teachers at clubs and in public schools, Keit’s work with the university is particularly important. Right now, Estonia has few developed sports for people with disabilities: swimming, athletics, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair curling and showdown. From these disciplines, less than 60 athletes compete internationally.
“I want to learn more about inspiring people who are like me,” Keit says. “I want to give people the chance to experience what sport can offer—the emotion and excitement. Swimming is our most popular sports and there are only about 20 of us who compete internationally. I want to reach more people with this message of inclusion.”
As she worked on developing herself into a stronger and more influential leader, Keit sought the guidance of mentors with practical knowledge on how to catalyze and sustain a disability sport movement. At Lakeshore Foundation, she joined forces with Karin Korb, policy and public affairs coordinator, and Amy Rauworth, director of policy and public affairs and associate director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability. Combined, these two disability sports experts have more than 30 years of experience as inclusion advocates, leading fitness and health initiatives and serving on influential national committees that promote physical activity for people with disabilities. Based at one of the United States’ most comprehensive adaptive sports facilities, Keit also learned in-depth about the cross-section of education and sport, disability policy, and running successful Paralympic programs.
In Zulu culture, challenges are seen as something to be conquered. Younger generations are driven to persevere in the face of obstacles—a spirit instilled in them by their forefathers.
For Siphamandla Gumbi, or “Sips,” these values were embedded in him as a boy in Umlazi, the second largest township in South Africa. At the age of 5, he became a wheelchair user after suffering paralysis from the removal of a tumor on his spine.
Sips missed three years of schooling and was sent to a boarding school almost 200 miles from his family to catch up. Upon his return to mainstream high school, new accessibility issues faced him.
“In order to get to class, I had to take my crutches so that I could climb up the stairs,” Sips says. “It taught me to persevere, be calm, and to always look forward and hope for better.”
Sips continued his studies in sport science at the University of Durban-Westville, where a friend first introduced him to wheelchair basketball. He had already inherited a love of sport from his father, a former player on one of South Africa’s top soccer clubs, AmaZulu F.C.
Through wheelchair basketball, Sips found an empowering form of self-expression. His club, Visa Wings, dominated the local league, and he was eventually called up to South Africa’s national team. In 2007, the team won the All-Africa Games in Algeria, then moved on to defeat Morocco in Paralympic qualifiers, becoming the top team on the African continent and qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Winning the competition remains his greatest basketball memory.
“We conquered Africa and earned the chance to show our skills to the world,” Sips says. “That drives you to develop the sport because those memories stay in your heart forever. It gives you a hunger to win and conquer.”
With 150 national team appearances and a 2008 Sportsman of the Year for the Disabled award to his name, Sips still plays and coaches competitively. He balances his sporting career with a job as a mobility consultant manager covering two provinces for Chairman Industries—a manufacturing and supply company for wheelchairs.
“I wake up at 4 a.m. to exercise and eat breakfast, then I travel around to do my consultations, home visits, repairs and deliveries,” Sips says. “At night, I head off for training. I don’t know where I get the energy. But I know people need me. Do I give up because it’s a sacrifice? Never.”
Currently, Sips is determined to develop youth wheelchair basketball throughout the country. Aside from inaccessibility and poor living conditions for people with disabilities, he acknowledges challenges posed by high crime rates, drug abuse, and youth pregnancy. Sips believes sport can help young people overcome these challenges and serve as a launching pad to a better life.
Sips leads youth basketball programs for Marlins Basketball Club—one of South Africa’s most successful wheelchair basketball organizations. In 2015, he coached a group of girls who represented South Africa in Paralympic qualifiers. Seven members on his boys team also successfully qualified with the national side for the U-23 World Championship in Canada. Aside from the competitive track, however, Sips wants to create a recreational program that reaches more youth in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. As part of this commitment, he developed a partnership with a non-disabled basketball team. This inclusive project unites players with and without disabilities on the court to create mutual understanding.
“It is not my legs that tell me where to go—it is my head and my heart,” Sips says. “I invite people who doubt to come play with me in the chair. They’re surprised when I can hang with them. Anyone can end up in a wheelchair and it doesn’t mean you should give up your love of basketball.”
With mentor Doug Garner, a career disability rights advocate who was honored as a 2015 Champion of Change by the White House, Sips had access to a community leader with more than three decades of experience in the intersection between sport and education. Under Doug’s leadership, the University of Texas-Arlington has organized teams in five different adapted sports, engaging three dozen student-athletes and more than 500 members of the campus community, while creating one of collegiate sports’ most successful wheelchair basketball programs. Doug closely guided Sips as he worked to create a comprehensive and sustainable youth wheelchair basketball structure and to implement projects that engage the breadth of South Africa’s disability community.
On the islands of Fiji, where ancient warriors evolved into some of the world’s most talented and formidable rugby players, the values of strength and toughness are highly valued.
Growing up in the town of Nausori, those values were the same for Fred Fatiaki. The oldest of five boys, he loved playing touch rugby with his bigger, stronger brothers—one of whom went on to play professionally for the national team. Throughout his early life, he was embraced by a family that pushed him to succeed, while showering him with love and support. He carried the responsibility of “leading by example” as a badge of honor.
Born with cerebral palsy, Fred was not treated differently from anyone else until he was 8 years old. After three years at a special school he attended for children with disabilities, he transferred to a mainstream all-boys school. On the first day of classes, the students stared him up and down, murmuring about what the boy who walked funny was doing mixed in with everyone else.
“I was like someone who had fallen out of the sky,” Fred laughs. “My mom told me, ‘They’re only staring at you because you’re special, Freddy.’ Disability awareness was still very low in those days. But, it taught me how to be strong—it made me who I am.”
When Fred was in secondary school, the girls joked about whether he would ever get married, and his skin grew thicker. He became increasingly focused on excelling. “A leader always has the courage to move forward,” he told himself. Sport still hadn’t made an appearance in his life, but it was there in his bloodline, inherited from grandfathers who were national rugby and cricket players.
At the age of 17, Fred traveled to Hawaii to undergo surgery for his mobility. After he returned and completed rehabilitation, he joined the Fiji Sports Association for the Disabled, where he began to lay the groundwork for his new calling in sports.
After one year of training, he won a gold medal in table tennis at the Fiji Games—the first of many in his career. He then transitioned into athletics and in 2002 won his first international silver medal in the 200 meters at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (the predecessor to the Asian Para Games).
After retiring in 2005, Fred became one of the first coaches in Fiji with a visible disability. Over the years, he has coached many of the country’s top athletes, including Iliesa Delana, who won the gold medal in the men’s high jump at the 2012 London Games— the first Fijian to win a Paralympic medal. It was a moment of intense satisfaction for Fred, as the “boy with the funny walk” made history for his country.
“We prepared for six years for that moment,” Fred says. “I’m humbled that out Fiji’s best coaches in different sports, I had the honor of being the first to bring a medal home. It completely opened the door for sports and disability in our country, and showed that people like me can contribute.”
Despite growing awareness and support, the Paralympic movement has progressed slowly in Fiji. Currently, the Fiji Paralympic Committee supports only eight athletes, all in table tennis and track and field events. For seven years, Fred volunteered as a sports development officer for the committee before being named its president. On top of this distinguished role, Fred continues to coach Fiji’s top track and field athletes.
According to the Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability, of Fiji’s population has a type of disability. In order to reach more people through adaptive sports, the committee organizes sports programs at 17 specialized schools, where more than 300 students with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities are positively impacted.
“I see so many people with disabilities who are not given the opportunity to show what they can do in sports,” Fred says. “People focus more on the disability than the ability. Sport is a way to challenge that view and open minds.”
As a participant in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Fred worked closely with Turnstone mentors Tina Acosta, director of program outreach, and Michelle Kimpel, director of wellness and adaptive sports, to create a strategy for expanding the Paralympic movement in Fiji. A Gold Level Paralympic Sports Club, Turnstone is home to the U.S. Men’s Paralympic Goalball Team, and offers eight competitive and recreational sports, including wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, and power soccer. In 2015, the organization raised $15 million from the surrounding community to open its state-of-the-art sports facility, which serves more than 2,200 people annually with sports, rehabilitation, adult learning, and inclusion programs. Working alongside two of Turnstone’s most experienced leaders, Fred learned about fundraising, community engagement, and new program monitoring practices that can help ensure the committee’s long-term sustainability, and show how sport can make an even deeper impact in the lives of people with disabilities across Fiji.
Mercedes Gomez knows how quickly life can change. In fact, it only takes one moment.
As a teenager, Mercedes left San Cristobal, Venezuela, where she was born and raised, to build a life and career for herself in Suriname. One night while hanging out with her friends, however, the driver of the group’s vehicle lost control with Mercedes in the passenger seat and crashed.
“In one moment, all my plans for my life were gone,” Mercedes says. “When you’re young you think nothing bad can happen to you—I could’ve died.”
The accident caused a severe injury to her spine, and Mercedes back to Venezuela for rehabilitation. Transitioning into life as a wheelchair user, she felt depressed and helpless.
“My father would carry me like a baby from room to room,” Mercedes recalls. “One day I looked around and I saw him in pain. I saw my mother exhausted and my daughter sad. I realized then that I couldn’t give up. I had to rebuild my life.”
With perfect timing, Mercedes discovered wheelchair racing. On the racetrack she had renewed purpose. Without a specially-designed sports wheelchair, Mercedes completed her first 35 races in her regular chair. She recalls one occasion when she medaled, only to discover that the winner’s podium had no ramps for the wheelchair users to receive their prizes.
Inequalities increasingly drove Mercedes to make a difference. She moved to Caracas to pursue a master’s degree in hospitality and tourism at the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA). In the Venezuelan capital, she received a donated sports wheelchair and began training with the Paralympic team—the first time she was around elite level athletes with disabilities.
Over the past four years, Mercedes’ racing career has taken off. She is a multiple-time national champion, winning more than 100 career medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m, 1500m, as well as in wheelchair marathon events. Since 2014, she has competed at the Los Angeles and New York City marathons.
“One day after practice, I asked myself, ‘Now what are you doing to help other people with disabilities?’” Mercedes says. “I’m a woman with a disability, a mom, and an athlete—if I put that all together I know I can do something good to support others. I don’t want to be the only Venezuelan woman competing on the racetrack.”
In 2015, she was approached by Achilles International—an international NGO devoted to creating racing opportunities for people with disabilities—about creating a chapter in Venezuela. The organization was interested in supporting the development of wheelchair racing from the grassroots level upward. The offer streamlined very well with Mercedes’s hopes to create a greater impact across society. Mercedes partnered with the existing organization, Discapacidad Cero (Zero Disability), and currently runs the Achilles’ Venezuelan chapter as an affiliated program.
According to census data from 2011, six percent of Venezuelans—1.8 million—have a disability. Mercedes and her organization use sports as a tool to include this population in society through several ways: providing sports programs for children, supporting racers to participate in national and international competitions, and running social awareness campaigns focused around inclusion, tolerance, and equal treatment of people with disabilities.
“In Venezuela, people aren’t educated in schools about how to treat people with disabilities,” Mercedes says. “Society is not disability-friendly. We can talk about accessibility in terms of ramps and building, but what happens when I get inside the building and the attitudinal barrier is larger than the physical barrier?”
Mercedes sees sport as a bridge between people with and without disabilities, recreational athletes and Paralympians, and the hopeless with the hopeful.
“Sport is like food for your body and mind that builds you into a complete and healthy person,” Mercedes says. “Life stops for many people after a disability. Sport restarts it.”
With the goal of establishing Achilles Venezuela as a sustainable entity, Mercedes needed the support of a mentor to help her develop strong partnerships with the government and private sectors, and maximize the organization’s reach across Venezuela. Stephanie Kanter, business support manager for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), has been with the organization for more than a decade and was the woman to guide Mercedes on this journey. RIC is a highly-respected trailblazer in rehabilitative medicine and adaptive sports programming in the United States. Stephanie, who also serves on the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, was supported as a mentor by Derek Daniels, RIC sports and fitness programs manager, and Larry Labiak, disability policy officer for the Chicago Park District, who previously served as mentors on the program. Together, this strong combination of disability sport leaders worked to create a comprehensive social impact plan that gets more Venezuelan wheelchair users active on the racetrack and in society.
Strapping into a wheelchair for his first game of power soccer, Joaquín Carrera thought he could rely on his polo skills polo player. As lover of the equestrian sport, who often played with his four siblings as a young man in Buenos Aires, the dynamics appeared similar: both are team-based sports where players use horses or machines to maneuver around a court and score goals.
“The power soccer players were much better than me, though” Joaquín laughs. “It is a very special relationship between the player and his horse or wheelchair. You must work together, and with your teammates, if you want to win. I love both sports. They are very exciting.”
Born to a business professor at a top university, Joaquín followed in his father’s footsteps. In 2013, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Catholic University of Argentina. Last year, he completed a one-year post-graduate course in management and administration of social non-governmental organizations, with plans to earn his MBA in Spain.
In his early career, Joaquín worked as a junior analyst in trade marketing for Johnson & Johnson, an executive director and advisory council member for CELAFOR (the Latin American Training Center), and as a coordinator and director various volunteer and entrepreneurial organizations. Propelled by a desire to make a bigger impact in society, he moved into the social sector after meeting Mariano Zegarelli, who founded Powerchair Football Argentina after his son was born with spinal muscular atrophy. Through a common passion for disability sport and social change, the two men became close. Zegarelli believed Joaquín could carry over his business knowledge to establish power soccer across Argentina, and hired him as executive director of Powerchair Football Argentina in 2014.
“I always believed in maintaining a balance between business and social responsibility,” Joaquín says. “Keeping this balance helps me grow internally as a person. I am happier knowing I’m giving everything for other people.”
As executive director, Joaquín desires to bring a high level of professionalism to the new sport. In his first days on the job, he learned all he could about disability. Then he reached out to rehabilitation centers, hospitals, soccer coaches and referees, creating the groundwork for a league and a national team.
“We had to bring an entirely new sport to Argentina,” Joaquín says. “In Argentina, there are many highly-qualified coaches, but few know about powerchair soccer. We had to show them the rules, teach them about disability, and work closely with other AFA and FIFA referees, in order to get off the ground.”
Progress has been significant. In the matter of a few years, the association has launched six clubs, with roughly 50 players pursuing professional and recreational tracks in four cities—Cordoba, Rosario, Buenos Aires, and Mar de Plata. As South American champions, Argentina competed at the 2017 World Cup in Florida, joined by two of the country’s referees.
According to Joaquín, there are 40,000 estimated wheelchair users in Argentina, including Vice President Gabriela Michetti and Minister of Labor Jorge Triaca. Overall, government statistics estimate more than 3 million Argentineans have some form of disability. Joaquín is convinced that sport can empower people with disabilities to become leaders across society, from business to government positions. In his time with the federation, he has seen how players develop relational, cognitive, and physical skills through sports. Many have been motivated to finish their educations and seek employment.
“Sport brings values that are very important for changing people’s mindsets,” Joaquín says. “Of course, you can create new realities for yourself and discover new horizons. You create new friendships and learn how to overcome challenges individually and with a team. But, most importantly, you show the world that disability is not a problem that needs to be fixed.”
Through participating in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Joaquín was on a mission to learn new ways to amplify athlete recruitment, set clear benchmarks for the federation’s future success, and ultimately expand power soccer across Argentina. He spent three weeks at Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities, one of the country’s most highly-respected and state-of-the-art rehabilitation and adaptive sports training centers. At Turnstone, he was mentored by Tina Acosta, director of program outreach, and Michelle Kimpel, director of wellness and adaptive sports—two women who have spent more than 15 years each serving with the organization. With nationally-successful power soccer club teams, and a decade of running recreational and competitive tracks for community members with disabilities, Turnstone provided Joaquín with the ideal environment and support for his long-term efforts to positively impact the lives of thousands of people with disabilities in Argentina.
When Vibhas Sen was diagnosed with polio as a boy, his family never expected for him to later find his way into sports. With disability awareness lacking in Mumbai, India during his childhood, Vibhas usually stayed inside when his friends and classmates were outside playing. At the age of 12, he was denied the opportunity to swim at a local pool when coaches expressed concerns about being unable to teach a person with a disability.
With sports as an afterthought, Vibhas began a successful career in digital marketing after earning his B.S. in Information Technology from the University of Mumbai in 2008. But, by his mid-20s he was ready to pursue sport again and convinced a coach to teach him how to swim. After six months of training, Vibhas was invited to participate in a state competition, where he surprised himself and won a silver medal.
“Since that moment I have been rewriting the sports history of my family,” Vibhas says.
After three years of intense swim training, Vibhas transitioned to wheelchair fencing, where he convinced a non-disabled coach to train him.
“I told him to take a chance on me—we could work together, watch a lot of YouTube videos, and do whatever I needed to prove myself,” Vibhas recalls. “After training for one year, there was a state championship and we won gold. Then we won gold again at nationals a month later.”
At the start of 2017, Vibhas was ranked 35th internationally in men’s sabre. He competes regularly at the international level with the aim of reaching the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. In addition to training, he works as the senior manager of digital marketing for PNB MetLife Insurance India and serves on the committees for the Maharashtra Paralympic Swimming Association, Mumbai Fencing Association, and Wheelchair Fencing Federation of India.
Vibhas always seeks ways to connect his marketing career with sports. Senior leadership at PNB MetLife was so impressed with his work, and his representation of the disability community, that he was recently asked to take the lead on its badminton project. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, he began lobbying for PNB MetLife to promote its Badminton Championship to include para athletes.
Throughout India, disability awareness and accessibility challenges present challenges preventing many of the country’s approximately 27 people with disabilities from accessing sports. Driven by this reality, Vibhas is active as a coach and speaker, visiting rehabilitation centers to speak with families and individuals who recently acquired disabilities.
“Before sports, people just knew me as the disabled guy in advertising—that was my standard bio” Vibhas says. “Now their entire perspective has taken a 180 degree turn. When I was young, I was blocked because of a lack of awareness and support. Now, I want to make sure no other para athlete goes through the hardships I went through.”
Vibhas has approached several organizations about partnering to recruit and create development programs for employees with disabilities. Through his relationships with sporting associations, he is also passionate about developing and expanding adaptive sports across India.
“In 2016, India won more Paralympic medals than Olympic levels, even though we had 100 less athletes,” Vibhas says. “If we work hard to develop more people like me we can make a great impact everywhere in the country. There is talent and there is interest, we just need to be better at finding people.”
For his mentorship experience, Vibhas traveled to one of the foremost rehabilitation facilities in the United States. At Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, he was mentored by two leaders in the area of adaptive sports advocacy, research, and programs: Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation, and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, attending physician at Spaulding, chairperson of the IPC Medical Committee, and seven-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair racing. For years, Mary served as the director of development for a hospital in Cape Cod that later became a part of Spaulding, as well as in chief roles with the regional branch of the American Red Cross. She is very familiar with grassroots development and the important role played by partnerships in making adaptive sports sustainable. Similarly, Dr. Cheri is closely affiliated with the Paralympic movement and exposed Vibhas to key networks and relationships. These established leaders helped provide Vibhas with the tools he needs for achieving his dream of a nationwide movement of adaptive sports in India.
It was three years ago when a job posting in the newspaper for the national director of Special Olympics Mongolia caught the attention of Bolormaa Purevdorj. With a successful career as a public health professional, Bolormaa was not actively seeking a new job. But she had always dreamed of making a big impact for young people in her country. Instinctively, she responded to ask about an interview.
“My motivation in life has always been to see happiness on children’s faces,” Bolormaa says. “Children are the first members of our communities. That is why I chose public health, and that is why I consider myself very lucky to be on this path now.”
For Bolormaa (the Mongolian name for “Crystal”), the job was her first experience working in the sports world.
As a girl in Sukhbaatar, a small city on Mongolia-Russia border, Bolormaa loved sports, especially loved running in the mountains and playing basketball. But she developed a passion for medicine and put sports to the side. In 1999, she earned a bachelor’s degree in general medicine and later completed a residency in dermatology and esthetics from the Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences. Since the early 2000s, Bolormaa has worked on public health and disease prevention initiatives for World Vision, Peace Corps Mongolia, the National AIDS Foundation, and the National Public Health Institute, among others. In 2008, she also earned a master’s degree in international development from Kobe University in Japan.
Launched in 2013, Special Olympics is still a young organization in Mongolia. In fact, Bolormaa was unaware of the its presence in the country until reading the job posting. However, she has always known about the difficulties faced by people with intellectual disabilities when trying to access social services. Her uncle has an intellectual disability and another close family member was born with Down syndrome.
“I want to empower special children so they can become community leaders, and sport is a really important way of doing this,” Bolormaa says. “We measure how our athletes begin to lose weight and improve their health as they participate. This improves their self-esteem, self-confidence, and regular class attendance, too. The kids then start to see themselves as role models and want to help others.”
Bolormaa’s key focus with Special Olympics is advocacy—“protecting human rights and the rights of our children,” in her words. She has accomplished this goal by creating an informal network among organizations working with the disabled community, and by producing a documentary on the importance of special education in schools. Currently, services for children with intellectual disabilities are concentrated in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, with four specialized schools serving approximately 1,000 children, according to Bolormaa. In Mongolia’s countryside, special schools and access to health and social services access are even more limited.
With official statistics on intellectual disabilities in Mongolia lacking, Bolormaa wants to play a role in conducting this important research. In 2015, she started a new program to screen incoming athletes and found that more than 90 percent of children needed urgent dentistry treatment and were affected by other treatable conditions. She is now trying to introduce a cost-free program to meet these needs in collaboration with local government, private dentistry clinics, and NGOs.
Altogether, Bolormaa says that Special Olympics has reached 1,600 athletes in the capital and six other provinces where the organization began new competitions.
‘We want to expand to eastern and southern Mongolia, were countryside children are largely ignored,” Bolormaa says. “I’ve seen young children who win medals in our competitions and how they run to their school directors’ offices to show them off with great pride. There is a big impact that we can make.”
With Special Olympics International’s support grant ending in 2018, one of Bolormaa’s key priorities was to secure organizational funding for the future. Outside of Special Olympics, the Paralympic Committee, and Achilles International, children with disabilities have few other opportunities to access sports in Mongolia. Bolormaa believes advocacy to government and private companies is the key to sustainability.
Through the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Bolormaa worked with mentors from Special Olympics-Washington (SOWA) to achieve her program goals. Engaging more than 14,500 children with its activities, the organization counts on a volunteer network of 8,000 people committed its diverse sports programs year-round. Its success is supported by strong collaboration from local and national organizations, and vital expertise in marketing and fundraising. Dave Lenox, president and CEO of SOWA, has spent almost 30 years with the Special Olympics at the local and international level. He and his team guided Bolormaa as she learned from experts as about how to ensure Special Olympics Mongolia’s long-term sustainability and success.
Entering class on the first day of school in Pristina, Rinor Gashi was in the unique position of being one of the first students with a visible disability in his village. As a 6-year-old escaping with his family during the Kosovo War, he experienced spinal injury due to a grenade attack and returned home from rehabilitation in Germany as a wheelchair user. His classmates, unaccustomed to seeing someone in a wheelchair, asked him, “Why can’t you walk like us, Rinor?”
While it was challenge being only student with a disability in his school, Rinor was encouraged by his family to remain active. Eventually, sport became an escape, as his brother often invited him to play soccer, modifying the game so that everyone could participate.
“I played in my wheelchair and I would shoot at the goal with my hand just to take part,” Rinor recalls. “My brother and his friends found a way to include me, and that meant a lot. I was just a normal boy like everyone else.”
Through his teenage years, Rinor practiced athletics, tennis, scuba diving, and swimming. But he fell in love with was wheelchair basketball. At 12 years old, he started visiting local clubs to play, and even though he didn’t play a lot, he set new goals to keep getting better.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t reach the basket with my shot,” Rinor says. “But, by the second year I could reach it. The first time I scored it felt like the best moment ever. I unlocked a new power—it was very exciting.”
After finishing secondary school, Rinor became involved as a leader within Kosovo’s disability sport movement. Since 2012, he has organized yearly events for wheelchair users, including the Active Rehabilitation Camp in neighboring Albania, the Kosovo National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, Halit Ferizi Memorial Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, and the International Day of People with Disabilities Tournament. In addition to these events, he serves as program coordinator for the NGO HandiKos, an advocacy organization that runs several projects serving the disability community.
“Our organization has branches in all the provinces of Kosovo,” Rinor says. “We have 18,000 people with physical disabilities in our network. We launch projects to cover the gaps left after government support and a lack of other health and social services.”
Based on USAID estimates, as many as 200,000 people in Kosovo have a disability. Despite this number, most facilities, transportation services, and schools remain inaccessible to them. Through the work of government and NGO’s like HandiKos, employment opportunities are growing. For people with spinal cord injuries or cerebral palsy, however, the country has a severe lack of rehab centers..
Rinor believes that sport can help close health and wellness gaps, as well as provide vital benefits to people with disabilities: increased self-confidence, a change in societal stereotypes, and newly-formed bridges between people with and without disabilities.
With his expertise in the basketball sector, Rinor is working to create a sustainable national wheelchair basketball league and federation. Currently, six wheelchair basketball clubs are established in Kosovo. Without a league, the teams only play when Rinor and HandiKos organize tournaments, sometimes leaving players without competition for up to five months. After Kosovo’s national basketball federation was accepted by FIBA in 2015, Rinor believed the logical next step was the creation of a wheelchair basketball federation.
“Creating the federation will be important for organizing and uniting the wheelchair basketball community in Kosovo,” Rinor says. “This is my personal and professional dream—that is why I’m willing to give everything to achieve it. More people with disabilities playing sport gives us a more active role in society, and changes stereotypes. I am the proof this can happen.”
During the program, Rinor was mentored by one of the United States’ key leaders in collegiate and youth wheelchair basketball. A recognized disability sport advocate who was honored as a Champion of Change by the White House, Doug Garner serves as head coach of the University of Texas-Arlington men’s wheelchair basketball team as well as commissioner of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Junior Division. With expertise in event organization, and experience collaborating with the national basketball federation, Doug has led grassroots efforts to engage the community to participate in and support disability sport. Doug and UT-Arlington served as vital resources for Rinor as he strives for a sustainable and functional culture of wheelchair basketball in Kosovo.
Ksenia Ovsyannikova was still undergoing rehabilitation when a wheelchair fencing trainer contacted her university in search of athletes for her team. At the age of 16, Ksenia had suffered a neck injury in a diving accident. Before the injury, she did not consider herself an athlete, but something motivated her to show up to the first practice.
“I was actually the first student at practice,” Ksenia recalls. “I didn’t know anything about wheelchair fencing then. Years later, I’m a national champion and a leader in the federation. This was clearly my destiny.”
Born to a small family in Moscow, Ksenia was partly raised in Mozambique, where her doctor father moved the family in order to a work in a hospital following the country’s civil war. After she returned to Russia, she completed a diploma in linguistics from Moscow State Social Humanitarian Institute and a master’s degree in international relations in 2011.
By this time, Ksenia was already a Russian champion in wheelchair fencing. Since 2008, she has won multiple Russian, European, and World championships in sabre, foil, and epee. Her most recent win was at the 2016 European Championships.
“In wheelchair fencing, you don’t fight with distance or time, you fight with an opponent,” Ksenia says. “The fight is like a conversation. If you have a strong opponent, they will also make you strong. After the fight, we become friends. Through this sport we can have friendships all over the world.”
Outside of competing, Ksenia works as the executive secretary of international relations for the Wheelchair Fencing Federation of Russia. In this role, she is responsible for coordinating international activities, organizing logistics and travel, and serving as team manager at major competitions. She is also licensed as an international referee in epee and sabre.
“The sport has given me another family,” Ksenia says. “My team became my family. I know all of my athletes and I support them. When someone loses their fight, we cry together. If they win, we sing our national anthem all together. This is a big emotional part of my life. It makes me very proud.”
At the IWAS Wheelchair Fencing Sport Assembly in Italy last November, Ksenia was appointed to work in international promotion and development of wheelchair fencing. She is specifically tasked with increasing the athlete pool for category C— a classification for athletes with disabilities in all four limbs. According to Ksenia, there are very few women compete in this category, and she is driven to increase recruitment at home in Russia and abroad.
In Russia, athletes with disabilities face challenges due to inaccessibility of facilities and transportation. Similarly, heavy snowfall in the winter can prevent wheelchair users from traveling easily. In addition to physical barriers, societal perceptions result in some parents of children with disabilities keeping them out of sports.
Ksenia is determined to change the perception of disability and expand the adaptive sports movement by increasing athlete recruitment in Russia’s hospitals and rehabilitation centers. She also hopes to launch special sports festivals, where she and her team will lead inclusive clinics that teach children how to fence using plastic swords while also integrating participants without disabilities.
“I want to show that disabled people can do almost anything that everyone else can do,” Ksenia says. “We just need to understand each other’s’ situations. We start with the children.”
For her mentorship experience, Ksenia was partnered with two dynamic female leaders at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, a top U.S. organization in the fields of rehabilitation, therapeutic recreation, and adaptive sports. For more than a decade, Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation, and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, attending physician, chairperson of the IPC Medical Committee, and seven-time Paralympic medalist, have worked in adaptive sports programming from the grassroots to Paralympic level. Both Mary and Dr. Cheri possess a comprehensive knowledge of how to build successful programs that positively impact communities locally and nationally. At Spaulding, Ksenia will was in an ideal environment to meet her program goals, including how to develop volunteer networks and organize sports events that place an empowering spotlight on disability sport in Moscow and beyond.
Growing up in a small coastal town on the Red Sea, Ahmad Khairallah was never given the opportunity to play sports during his childhood. Born with Osteogenesis imperfecta (often referred to as “brittle bone disease”), he was constantly at risk of injury, which mostly restricted him to the home. At that time in rural Saudi Arabia, support and services for people with disabilities were not commonplace. However, his mother helped him and his two brothers with their schooling and, most importantly, taught Ahmad to believe he would achieve great success in the future.
“My mother couldn’t read or write, but she believed in the power of education and always pushed me and my brothers,” Ahmad says. “If she didn’t have courage and drive for me, I wouldn’t have made it.”
For young people with disabilities in Ahmad’s community, he says the only option aside from giving up was to move to a larger city with more opportunities. Driven to become involved in sports and society, Ahmad chose the former and moved to Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, and later to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he earned a higher diploma in technology from the Asian Institute of Management Science. He is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in e-commerce from Saudi Electronic University.
Even though Ahmad never played sports growing up, he has greatly admired Olympic and Paralympic athletes since watching the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games on television. Ahmad first witnessed people with disabilities playing sport with his own eyes when fellow university students invited him to come watch their goalball practices—the only adaptive sport offered at the time.
Given his interest in sport and expertise in I.T., Ahmad later joined the Saudi Arabian National Paralympic Committee as its web and social media administrator. Since 2015, this role has provided him with an opportunity to blend his two passions, and work with other people in the disability community.
“Going to practices, I see how people with disabilities enjoy sports so much,” Ahmad says. “I see the joy of the kids. They ware flying on the ground. It is liberation. We all need to see this to believe it is possible, and that we have champions among us.”
Although there are many sports clubs in Saudi Arabia, most facilities remain inaccessible. There is also a lack of transportation, coaches, and training knowledge for people with disabilities. Without official statistics available, he estimates there are roughly 500,000 to one million Saudis with disabilities. For those who live in small towns are rural areas, there is almost no access to sports
“These are big challenges to overcome if you are disabled and want to play sports,” Ahmad says. “It may seem hard to believe, but people with disabilities are caged in their homes—this is the unfortunate reality. Lack of education, money, facilities, and social stereotypes keeps them down. You cannot be a quitter if you have a disability and want to play sports.”
In the last decade, there have been positive signs with the notable growth of Saudi Paralympics, sparked on by four medals in the past three Games—the first four in the country’s history. The government has started providing money and coaching for participation in domestic and international tournaments. Ahmad wants to use his digital skills, and increasing accessibility features in I.T., to promote movement campaigns and Paralympic activities on the internet.
In order for Ahmad to be successful on his mission, he wanted to learn more about marketing from a Paralympic perspective, fundraising, and developing government policies that support sports activities for the disabled community. For his mentorship, he was be based at the National Ability Center, a prominent U.S. Paralympic sports club with comprehensive adaptive sports programs focused on inclusion and therapeutic recreation. At the NAC, Ahmad worked with two of the organization’s key leaders, Gail Loveland, CEO, and Tracy Meier, program and education director. Collectively, both have served for more than two decades with the NAC, providing more than 30,000 annual sports experiences for community members, and working with a range of local and national sponsors, as well as more than 1,000 volunteers. His mentors experience, coupled with the organization’s emphasis on inclusion, grassroots engagement, and elite training, provided Ahmad with a vital resource base where he was able pull information for broadening the impact of Paralympic sports across Saudi Arabia.
“Where one journey ends, another begins.” For the past seven years, Tinatin Revazishvili has shared this message across Georgia.
Born and raised in Tbilisi, the first two decades of Tinatin’s life were focused on her education, and later her career. In 2002, she earned a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant marketing from the Tbilisi State Institute of Economic Relations and was soon hired by Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, where she climbed the company ladder.
In 2009, Tinatin’s journey changed course when a car accident left the lower half of her body paralyzed.
“The accident was the beginning of a new life and an introduction into a new community for me,” Tinatin says. “Of course, everything changed. But, I never would have discovered sport if not for my disability.”
For the first time, Tina tried bowling, archery, and horse riding. Within one year of her accident, she began working part-time as a disability advocate for the Coalition of Independent Living on a USAID-supported project to ensure the legal rights of people with disabilities. In 2012, she was elected as vice president of the National Paralympic Committee, where she currently serves as the international relations coordinator.
As she began traveling for tournaments with the NPC, Tinatin noticed the differences in accessibility between Georgia and other European countries. According to statistics, the country has approximately 120,000 people with disabilities. In 2014, Georgia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, though inaccessibility challenges, stigmas, and limited awareness about the legal rights of the disabled still exist.
Tinatin has actively lobbied government for greater support of people with disabilities. In 2015, Tbilisi built its first fully accessible sports complex, offering fencing, sitting volleyball, basketball, amputee football, boccia, powerlifting, and archery. It was a move in the right direction for Tinatin and the growing disability sport movement in Georgia.
“It is so important for everyone to have the right to play sports,” Tinatin says. “It is an area where a person can rediscover themselves after a disability. Sport allows you to take your life into new directions.”
On top of her many roles, Tinatin also coaches boccia and was named general secretary of the Georgia Boccia Federation. While the sport is new in Georgia, she sees its growth as vital for people with cerebral palsy and severe disabilities. Last October, a team representing the country entered a beginner’s tournament in Poland and finished third—a huge boost for the athletes and a step in the right direction.
Tinatin believes the growth of adaptive sports and the Paralympic movement are fundamental for addressing societal perceptions that people with disabilities are less capable than others. Currently, she estimates only 200 people with disabilities are active in sports—less than 1 percent of the total disabled population. With one of the country’s blind judo competitors winning gold at Rio 2016—the country’s first ever Paralympic medalist at the Games—the country has a growing interest in funding more athletes to compete.
“I want to be an advocate for people with disabilities because I know exactly how a person with a disability thinks and feels,” Tina says. “I am an example that wheelchair users and people with other disabilities can be active and accomplish more than people imagine. I will not give up in this fight for them.”
The next phase in Tinatin’s journey was the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, where she was mentored by Karin Korb and Amy Rauworth at the Lakeshore Foundation. An organization with a decorated history in disability sport policy, advocacy, and research, Lakeshore is home to one of the most highly-respected adaptive sports programs in the United States. Karin, policy and public affairs coordinator, and Amy, director of policy and public affairs and associate director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability, supported Tinatin by drawing on three decades of experience in organizing and leading initiatives that promote sport for inclusion, health, and fitness. Through their time together, Tinatin focused on what she needs to build and sustain a successful Paralympic movement that touches every corner of Georgia.
Growing up in the snowiest region of Armenia, Gagik Sargsyan naturally loved skiing. As a boy, he tried wrestling and other sports with his friends, but they didn’t impact him like cross-country skiing in the open air of his village. When his father gave him his first ski suit and set of boots, Gagik would even sleep with them in his bed at night.
“For me, sport is like a school for educating you on how to live life,” Gagik says, “and I was in school when I was out on the mountains.”
At 16 years old, Gagik left Vardenik and moved to the capital city, Yerevan, where he began his studies in ski sport pedagogy at the Armenian Institute of Physical Culture and Sport (ASIPC). At university, he captained the cross-country ski team for three years. He stayed at the university through his Ph.D., and later added a master’s degree in law from the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia.
In 2005, Gagik accepted a position as general secretary of the Armenian Ski Federation. In this role, he is responsible for managing international affairs, coordinating the national team, organizing events, and developing the annual budget and development plan. As a promoter of sport from within the federation, he has launched three programs focused on children’s participation in snow sports. His passion for sport is so pervasive that he continues to train regularly with the alpine skiing national team.
In addition to Gagik’s work at the federation, he was recently appointed dean of the faculty of sport pedagogy and management at ASIPC. The university is the only institution in Armenia that offers training in sports therapy and physical rehabilitation, with significant potential to positively impact people with disabilities nationwide.
Although he does not have a disability, Gagik has become increasingly aware of the needs of Armenia’s disabled community. According to the United Nations, 185,000 people in the country have disabilities. During his time at the federation, Gagik has seen how the “outdated system of sport,” as he calls it, has kept people with disabilities from participating in large numbers. Many buildings and sports facilities are inaccessible to wheelchair users. And with funding concentrated in specialized government schools, as opposed to clubs, there are limited opportunities for non-recruited athletes to these schools to gain entry into established sports programs. Gagik is on a mission to break down these roadblocks.
“Sports is intended to level the playing field and show that everyone is equal,” Gagik says. “It is an important part of your physical education and rehabilitation. But, if you have a disability, you must be very determined to play. There isn’t a special government program to support disability sport; our budget at the federation is one-third the budget of the government’s cross-country school.”
One of the solutions, in Gagik’s opinion, is stronger collaboration between government, NGOs, the Paralympic committee, universities, and international sporting bodies. In terms of national impact, Gagik has a close working relationship with the president of the Paralympic committee, and has already been told by Ukraine’s Paralympic cross-country coach that he would collaborate to train Gagik’s athletes. The federation also recently hosted its first program successful targeting military veterans with disabilities. With Gagik’s influential positions at the federation and the university, he feels there are vast opportunities to work with more coaches, athletes, and trainers to improve the system of sport across Armenia.
“If we want a strong sports system in Armenia, we need to build it step-by-step, in a roundtable, to make sure we are together and can be successful,” Gagik says. “I have strong relationships and people ready to help with the training and competitions.”
Through the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Gagik learned more about the history and methodologies of the U.S. sports system at both the university and national level, as well as engaged in an idea exchange on how to strengthen the impact he can make for people with disabilities in his country. At the National Ability Center, an official U.S. Paralympic sports club with comprehensive adaptive sports programs focused on inclusion and therapeutic recreation, he worked with CEO Gail Loveland and Tracy Meier, program and education director, executive leaders in an organization that provides 30,000 annual sports experiences in Park City, Utah. In addition to its significant grassroots and community engagement, the NAC’s first-rate facilities are home to Paralympic development programs in a range of winter sports, including alpine skiing, adaptive snowboarding, and paratriathlon. During his mentorship, Gagik was able to access many of the tools he needed from a training and administration perspective in order to create a collaborative and structured plan to expand sports and education opportunities for people with disabilities across Armenia.
For a long time, Mohamad Raafat wasn’t sure if he would play sports again. Soon after winning his first karate championship at the age of 13, he was injured in an accident while playing with friends on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt. The injury to his spinal cord required two years of rehabilitation and resulted in Mohamed becoming a wheelchair user. He remembers that all he could think about at that point was returning to his earlier lifestyle.
Then, Mohamed turned on the television to the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“There were so many Egyptians who won gold medals,” Mohamed remembers. “It inspired me to start playing again. I wanted to play a tough sport, too, to make my body stronger and to be independent.”
Months later, Mohamed began seriously training as a wheelchair racer. In 2016, he won a silver medal in the 100 meters and a gold medal in the 200 meters at the Egyptian National Cup. He is currently training with his goal set on qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Mohamad balances training with a career as a project coordinator for Alhassan Foundation for Differently Abled Inclusion, as well as coursework for an MBA at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and international business in 2012. He regularly spends eight hours in the office coordinating the foundation’s major projects, then trains for two hours, and later supports his father at night with the accounting for his garment manufacturing business.
It is a demanding schedule, but Mohamed understands the importance of balancing his many endeavors to his personal growth. In fact, his many responsibilities help propel him forward in challenging stereotypes of people with disabilities, who in 2011 were estimated in a report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF to make up 11 percent of the country’s population (approximately 8.5 million people).
“There is this perception that people have toward people with disabilities that we are so limited,” Mohamed says. “Discrimination is very normal. But, I want to show that if we open the door to people with disabilities, they can become champions and success stories.”
Through its community outreach programs,
Alhassan Foundation dispels these perceptions by encouraging wheelchair users to challenge themselves and gain confidence on a daily basis. Mohamed is currently the lead on five projects that focus on sports, accessible transportation, wheelchair customization, small business support, and the creation of an information database on wheelchair users across Egypt.
As a sportsman himself, Mohamed is especially passionate about the sports program. In 2013, the program launched as a way to give wheelchair users a means to socialize and exercise. Since then, it has grown to include 80 athletes who compete nationally.
“The sports program was only intended as a trial, but it’s had really amazing results,” Mohamed says. “When a person doesn’t have anything in their life and they come to this club to try these new sports and make friends, it’s like their life takes a 180 degree swing. Sport isn’t sport anymore. It’s a way to heal and move forward. It’s a path to college, work, marriage, and an active role in society.”
As Alhassan’s sports program was initially founded to serve recreational purposes, it lacked a level of professionalism and expertise associated with elite sports programs in other countries. A lack of accessible sports facilities where athletes can train, and a gap in sponsorship and fundraising presented other challenges to the success of the foundation’s sports teams.
Through the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Mohamed benefited from the guidance of a mentor who worked with him to fill these gaps. During the program, he was partnered with mentor Sarah Olson, program coordinator for Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center. Sarah is the lead on military, membership, and other health and wellness programs for the organization, and has the experience of serving in her role since Ability360’s grand opening in 2012. The largest independent living center in Arizona, the organization is home to comprehensive adaptive sports programs that emphasize independence, fitness, and overall health. Through Sarah and Ability360, Mohamed had access to every aspect of an organization at the top of the field in disability sport, which were of great value for him on his road to expand his impact felt in Egypt.
The brace was sticking out through Zabdai Zamuel’s shorts. It was time to divide up teams for basketball, but he knew he wasn’t going to be picked. Everybody was afraid the boy with the “broken leg,” as they called him, would slow them down.
Born in Paramaribo to a Surinamese father and Dutch mother, Zabdai did not feel fully accepted by others at a young age due to his mixed background. When he suffered nerve damage from an injury at the age of 6, the resulting physical disability presented new challenges to Zabdai’s life.
“After the nerve transplant, my parents were so worried that they tried everything to help me recover: traditional medicine, Western technology, acupuncture, even visiting a tribal shaman,” Zabdai says. “Part of the sensation and mobility came back, and now I have scar, a long leg with a short foot, a short leg with a bigger foot, and a story.”
In secondary school, Zabdai discovered his passion and skill at swimming. Through hard work in practice, he became one of the best athletes in his class. By 1998, he was national youth triathlon champion of Suriname.
Triathlon had lost popularity in Suriname over the years, but Zabdai remained in touch with every coach that he knew to keep training. The coaches were shocked to see a teenage boy at the pool so early in the morning, borrowing their coaching books and manuals so he could study them after practice. For most of the 1990s, Zabdai feels that sport was seen as a hobby in Suriname. He challenged that notion with every early morning swim and long afternoon bike ride. With little support for his own career, at the age of 21, he dedicated himself to coaching.
“I thought to myself: If I could make the Olympics, I’d only be one person,” Zabdai says. “But, if I could be there as a coach, there could be 20 of us. I wanted to be the guy who I needed when I was an athlete trying to reach my dreams.”
After being certified as a trainer in 2001, Zabdai began to coach others in swimming, athletics, and triathlon. He traveled the world to learn from experienced international coaches in order to apply the knowledge back in Suriname. In 2010, he coached his first Swimmer of the Year. Since then he has trained every yearly winner, including Renzo Tjon-A-Joe, one of the fastest swimmers in Surinamese history and a 2016 Olympian.
Four years ago, Zabdai approached the Suriname Paralympic Committee about expanding his work. He extended an invitation for blind and visually-impaired swimmers to train in an inclusive environment alongside his other students. One of the athletes who arrived at the club never thought it would be possible to train on his own. Now, he is helping Zabdai to train the younger swimmers, and is training for duathlons with his coach’s help.
In Suriname, financial support for the development of adaptive sports is lacking, so Zabdai is on a mission to change the culture of sport. He plans to create a new generation of role models and mentors for athletes and coaches to follow. As a way of starting this mission, Zabdai took the photos and memorabilia of national athletes that he had collected over the years to hang up in a local café. The act was a way of honoring the sports heroes of Suriname’s past and motivate sports heroes for the future.
“I created my own Wall of Fame in that place,” Zabdai says. “There’s a disconnect that I want to bridge. I’m very stubborn. Once I get something into my head, I will never abandon that mission. I’ll stop when I’m finished.”
With three decades of experience in the disability sport sector, Mark Lucas guided Zabdai as on his mission to spark a greater appreciation of the Paralympic movement in Suriname. Among his many responsibilities as executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, Mark oversees sports management programs for nine Paralympic sports—including swimming, cycling, and athletics—and manages relationships with the U.S. Olympic Committee, sports clubs in more than 30 U.S. states, and international disability sport federations. With Mark’s support and extensive knowledge of Paralympic sport, Zabdai was able to discover the leadership skills he needs to forge greater collaboration between Suriname’s sport and government entities, as well as best practices for developing sustainable mentorship and athlete development structures to produce a broader impact in communities across Suriname.
In response to the success of the GSMP: Empower Women through Sports program, in 2016 the U.S. Department of State restructured the GSMP initiative to include a disability sport component. Continuing its cooperative partnership with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, it launched Sport for Community (S4C), which uses a similar immersive mentorship and cultural exchange model to focus on empowering people with disabilities through community-based sports initiatives.
Through S4C, U.S. disability sport leaders and their organizations provide emerging leaders from around the world with the opportunity to cultivate sports management, marketing, and business skills in a U.S. sport-related environment. In 2016, the first S4C program hosted 15 emerging leaders from 13 countries (an earlier version of Sport for Community organized by Partners of the Americas was held in 2014). The 2016 group included Paralympic executives, world champion athletes, disability rights advocates, coaches, and educators, who all returned home to spark significant and positive social impact in their communities.
Despite progress over the years, accessibility challenges, social exclusion, and a lack of educational and sports opportunities continue to keep people with disabilities marginalized. Evidence shows that people with disabilities who are given opportunities to participate in sports experience an increase in self-confidence, social inclusion, economic empowerment, employment, and independence. With the growth in prominence of the Paralympic Games and the increasing development of adaptive sports worldwide, the time is right to empower leaders with a passion and commitment for promoting equality and opportunity so that everyone receives the opportunity to get in the game.