Racing toward a dream

By Greg Lindberg

March 2011

The Crow’s Nest Student Newspaper at USF St. Petersburg

He competes in races. He can move up to 40 mph. If you don’t look fast enough, you might not see him go by. That’s because nothing gets in his way.

On March 23, Josh George, a Paralympic wheelchair racer, told his inspirational story to a small yet admiring group at USF St. Petersburg. The gold medal winner talked about his life and career as an athlete.

“The word ‘can’t’ isn’t really a negative term,” he said. “It’s only an expression.”

At age four, George suffered a fall from 12 stories up from a high-rise condo in Washington, D.C. He landed on his legs and was immediately paralyzed from the chest down. But it happened at an age when it would not totally alter his lifestyle.

“My injury came when I was so young that I didn’t know any better,” he said, adding that his wheelchair was a “fun toy to play with” when he first started using one.

Instead of letting the accident bring the family down, his parents were determined that their son could still be active. He got involved in wheelchair athletics when he was eight years old. He later attended the University of Illinois on a basketball scholarship and earned a degree in journalism.

George won gold and silver medals for the United States at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, calling them a “physical representation of a goal I had.” The gold was in the 100-meter T53 event while the silver came in the 800-meter T53 race. Four years earlier, he captured two bronze medals at the Paralympics in Athens. The 27-year-old said that just because he won these extraordinary awards doesn’t mean his goals in life have been accomplished.

“There is always more to strive for,” he said.

The Paralympic Games is an international competition of athletes with disabilities held right after the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same venues. It is separate from the Special Olympics, which is geared toward those with mental disabilities. The 2008 Paralympics were so popular that they drew sold-out crowds of 92,000 people each day.

When racing, George uses a custom chair made of aluminum alloy that has three wheels. He positions himself as if he is kneeling and “punches” the wheels with his hands in rubber gloves. He can even climb stairs in the wheelchair. To prepare for events, he does weight training and works out his chest, upper back and arms, all of which provide the power he needs for speed and endurance. He is already looking forward to the 2012 Paralympics in London.

According to George, other countries are more “forward-thinking” when it comes to the perception of disabilities. That is why the Paralympics are televised in Canada and parts of Europe but receive minimal coverage in the U.S. There is a “stigma” about those with physical disabilities in the U.S., George said. People immediately want to help these individuals without asking whether they need assistance, which can make them feel even more unable to do things.

While at an airport recently, George was seated near Mariano Rivera, the longtime New York Yankees pitcher. Everyone was looking at him in his wheelchair and paid no attention to the well-known baseball star.

Jovanna Guevara, an assistant in the multicultural affairs office, put on the event. It was one of several diversity events Guevara has organized.

“We wanted to bring him in to show a different side of what diversity means,” she said.

La-Tarri Canty, the assistant director of multicultural affairs and programming, was impressed by George’s message.

“It really made me take a step back and evaluate some of the things that I’ve been making excuses for,” she said. “He definitely achieved what he came here to do – to make us focus not on the things we can’t do but on the things we can do.”