Stuart Weir writes a feature on youth in the IPC WC.
If you are good enough, you are old enough
One of the more surprising aspects of the athletes participating in the 2019 Para Athletics World Championships in Dubai, is the age range 14 to 71! In a non-exhaustive look at the athletes’ ages, I have identified 39 athletes aged 18 and under and 45 athletes 41 years old or older. (I would stress that I have not had time to check the age of all 1400 athletes so the likelihood is that my numbers are indicative, but not comprehensive). In this article I will look at 39 athletes aged 18 and under to see what we can learn about the kind of teenagers who are participating in the world championship. In a separate article I will look at the “senior citizens”.
My sample of 39 included:
- 3 fourteen year-olds, 5 at fifteen and 6 who are sixteen.
- 24 were in running events, 7 were throwers, 7 long jumpers and 1 wheelchair racer. To confuse my stats one athlete was in four events!!
- They were from 27 countries – China and Australia had four each. There were also teenagers from a number of unexpected countries – Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, India, Namibia and Uzbekistan for example.
- They represented well the different classifications: 15 amputees, 12 cerebral palsy, 5 with visual impairment, 2 intellectual disability, 1 dwarfism, 2 wheelchair users and 2 with hypertonia/ataxia etc
Kashish Lakra was an aspiring Indian wrestler until a training accident in which she landed on her neck, damaging her spine so severely that she has been in a wheelchair since. After 18 months of grueling rehabilitation she has made it to the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai aged 15. She said: “Life didn’t make any sense to me. I felt like my neck had been cut off from my body but I was determined to survive and live on my terms. Sports and I were meant for each other so along with my coach I decided on competing in the club throw discipline”.
Ezra Frech (USA) was born with congenital limb differences, missing his left knee and left fibula, and fingers on his left hand. At 11 months, when he started to pull himself up to stand, he received his first prosthetic leg. He quickly learned to walk and has been unstoppable ever since. Since Ezra was 4 years old, he has spoken at schools, bringing his message that “Being Different is OK” and raising awareness and understanding for the physically challenged. Now aged 14, he told me about the experience of competing in the World Championship: “It’s a truly an honor to be here because just a few years ago I was watching these guys on TV so the idea of running with them and jumping with them is something I’ll never forget”. I wondered if he still managed to be a “normal” teenager. His thoughtful reply was: “If being a normal teenager means I cannot come to these events then I don’t want to be a normal teenager. I’m happy to be able to compete for USA and travel round the world at such a young age. I miss a lot of school so tonight when I get back to the hotel, I’ll probably be doing schoolwork but at the end of the day it’s completely worth it”.
Sydney Barta (USA), who has been in running and throwing events this week at the age of 15, said: “It’s pretty overwhelming but I’m also a feeling really blessed to be able to come here because the younger you get the experience, the younger you learn about competing at a high level. This will help me to experience what it will be like for me hopefully in the future”. She felt the main challenge of competing in an adult international competition was as follows: “I’m not as focused as I should be and I get star struck very easily by the amazing athletes here. I feel overwhelmed but it’s a great experience. I do a lot of trainin, but I still spend time with my friends and I have a lot of homework. I’ve been doing homework this week and I’ll be doing a lot on the flight home”. Back home she also plays volleyball and basketball”.
Of course, it says something about the standard of some IPC events that a 14-year old can be competitive in both track and field disciplines. However, I prefer to concentrate on the positives that these remarkable and inspirational teenagers, who have overcome so many obstacles to be here, exude.