On Sept. 7, some of the greatest athletes in the world took part in the opening ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Among them were some of our own. They ate at the same restaurants, biked to the same parks, ran on the same tracks, sailed at the same beaches and went to high schools in the same area. Here are two of those dedicated Bay Area native athletes and their stories.
Other than an added twisting motion during races and workouts, class of 2016 Gunn HS alumnus Amy Watt doesn’t think she runs any differently than anyone else. Sure, her start is a little harder as she leans her left arm on a stand that she created with tennis ball cans, but she had hardly thought of this as a burden. In fact, when she had joined the GHS track team, it had never occurred to her that this distinction could lead to an opportunity that many of her teammates would never have: competing in the Paralympics.
Watt was born with a disability in which her left arm stops just below her elbow. And though she has learned to make up for this, even now she has some trouble lifting weights and carrying heavy objects.
“I don’t feel like it limits me,” Watt said. “Because I’ve been doing things like this my whole life so I don’t really know anything different.”
Still, she was not aware of her eligibility to compete in the Paralympics until her sophomore year of high school.
Before competing with the Paralympic team, Watt competed on the track team at GHS. There she was introduced to the Paralympics by an alumnus who had stopped by to practice with the team. He noticed her practicing and encouraged her to take part in the Paralympic trials that were conveniently taking place in San Mateo that year. That was her first exposure to the world of Paralympic competition.
“I saw some other girls with the same disability as me [at the Paralympic trials],” Watt said, “and, seeing that, I was able to really learn to be a part of it as well.”
Since then, Watt has been to a slew of national and international paralympic competitions including her first competition at the Paralympic National Championships two years ago. Her performance there led to an opportunity to compete at the Paralympic Pan-American Games where she placed fourth in both the 100m and the 200m, the two events she competed in.
“That was my first big international meet with team USA,” Watt said. “There was a village similar to the Paralympics, and that was my first time meeting people who also competed for Team USA.”
Beyond that, she competed at Worlds in Qatar last year and Nationals once again. Though the Paralympics will be the biggest meet she has competed in so far, Watt isn’t nervous. Rather, her international competition experience has prepared her for her Rio 2016 debut.
Her trip to Rio, however, had been somewhat rocky. Despite reaching the performance standard necessary for her to compete at the Paralympics during Nationals this past year, a complication led her to be left off the team roster and instead being instated as an alternate. After an injury to one of her teammates and additional spots being allocated to Team USA after the Russian doping scandal, she made the team.
Now, she is excited to compete and once again spend time with her teammates and competitors.
“I’m excited to experience what the Paralympics are like,” Watt said, “because it’s a very special experience that I’m very lucky to have.”
52 years ago, his father bought a sailboat, and they taught each other how to sail. They sailed so well that they won the first competition they entered in (though they attribute the victory to a great deal of luck). Now, years later, 64-year-old Dee Smith is competing at his first Paralympic games in the 2.4m sailing.
“I’m the 40 year old virgin,” Smith said. “And I’m 64.”
In prior years, Smith had been unable to compete at the Paralympics due to the expenses involved with it. He explained how only the wealthy could afford to compete, especially in the sports like sailing that often don’t get much sponsorship. Instead, his friends and family had to help raise the money for Smith to get this opportunity to compete.
“Our country does not support our athletes,” Smith said. “Our people do. And, that is a bit of a worry because only the people with money can compete.”
Despite this being his Paralympic debut, Smith is not particularly nervous. He has competed in several international and national competitions; he is a professional. It is nice to have his friends and family in Rio to support him, but, during the race, none of this really matters.
“It makes no real difference to me,” Smith said. “A race is a race is a race is a race.”
Unlike Watt, Smith was not born with his disability. In 2007, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and told that he would likely only have 6 to12 months to live. He lost his ability to walk temporarily, and after that scare, it was an uphill battle to return to a similar level of fitness as before. Six years later, however, Smith was clipped by a car while he was riding his bike while competing at the America’s Cup. Following this, he had a spine surgery, after which he was officially deemed “disabled.”
“That limited me quite a bit,” Smith said. “I had permanent damage to my legs, nerve damage, and I have holes in my back from the tumors that left holes after they left.”
With his disability, Smith is limited. He has trouble doing many of the tasks that we take for granted, but he chooses to look at the positives.
“I can’t play basketball, tennis, run or lift anything heavy,” Smith said, “but what I can do is I sail and I can compete.”
Smith is an alumnus from Willow Glen HS, and he looks to come back to the Bay Area in October. He grew up in the Marin County area and, as a kid, he practiced sailing in Santa Cruz. And now, he has the opportunity to represent the U.S. in one of the biggest competitions in the world.
“The event is quote unquote more important,” Smith said. “Therefore you get interviewed and such, but you got to do the same things in the water that you do in any race, and you’ve got to do them better than anyone else.”
Smith has two races a day, one at 1:10pm and the other at 2:25pm (in Brazil) from the 12th to the 17th.