Paralympians hope their stories will inspire others to push the limits of life — even in the face of physical disabilities

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 10:41 p.m. MST

United States Olympic Winter Games Para-skier Heath Calhoun poses for a portrait at the 2013 Team USA Media Summit on Monday, October 1, 2013 in Park City, UT. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)

Carlo Allegri, AP

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When Heath Calhoun was laying in a hospital bed recovering from losing both his legs to the war in Iraq, he never dreamed he’d be able to represent his country as an athlete.

As he adjusted to life as a double-amputee, he discovered that sports were still an option.

“I had never heard of the Paralympics,” said the alpine sit skier who will compete for the U.S. in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi later this week. “I didn’t know what it was. So to go from laying in a hospital bed to finding out that there was something ... something to shoot for, and attain, it was the perfect fit.”

The Paralympic Winter Games begin with Thursday's opening ceremony and run through March 16. The games featuring five different adaptive sports will include 80 U.S. athletes and six competitors from Utah.

These games will enjoy unprecedented support from NBC, with 52 hours of coverage, including 27 hours of live coverage. It begins with the opening ceremony being broadcast live on March 7 at 9 a.m. MST on NBCSN. TeamUSA.org will stream all events live, as well.

While the coverage won’t be in prime time, it’s significantly more support than the Paralympic Games have ever had, and that has the athletes grateful and giddy.

“I think the American TV audience will love it,” said Rob Umstead, who is participating as a guide for his wife, Danelle, a two-time bronze medalist who is visually impaired. “I think America is going to fall in love with the athletes and the Paralympic team, and it’s just going to get bigger from there.”

The Park City couple qualified in all five alpine disciplines and said they believe the support from sponsors, including NBC, will change the way the public views the games, which feature adaptive sports like sit skiing, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.

“It’s going to bring more awareness,” said Danelle. “It will bring more athletes, bring more children with disabilities, veterans with disabilities. … Overall, it’s going to be a huge message to all Americans that we are true athletes. We do the same thing as the able-bodied athletes, but we do it with a physical disability.”

Many of the athletes who participated in the United States Olympic Committee’s media summit said they believe just the exposure will help increase participation and sponsor support.

Calhoun suspects most people are like he was before a rocket-propelled grenade changed his life.

“They’ve never seen an actual disabled sport from start to finish,” he said, noting that most adaptive sports athletes sacrifice, work and train just like their Olympic counterparts — but without the attention or financial support.

“For once, finally, and you can tell we’re all very excited about it, we get to share this with America and I think that’s huge,” he said. “Not only just Americans, but those future Paralympians who are going to come up, and who will see companies get behind all of this. It legitimizes our sport, finally.”

While the Paralympic movement is more than 50 years old, the U.S. Paralympic Committee is only 13 years old. Adaptive sports have been around for more than 100 years, but it was in 1960 that the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome. In 1976, Sweden held the first Paralympic Winter Games.

Calhoun said he’s watched the movement grow just in the last few years. He said that training with Team USA gear on just a few years ago didn’t turn a single head. Now, people recognize the Paralympians as elite athletes around the world.

“In London, it just took off,” he said. “It’s just been on a rapid, uphill slope. It’s just been amazing to watch, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of it.”

Utah is sending three alpine athletes and three snowboarders to compete in Sochi.

The alpine skiers are the Umsteads, who won the World Cup on the Sochi course last year, and four-time Paralympian Stephani Victor, who owns five medals. Like the Umsteads, Victor is also from Park City.

The snowboarders are Ogden’s Keith Gabel, Salt Lake City’s Tyler Burdick and Bountiful’s Nicole Roundy. In the week leading up to the opening ceremony, the Deseret News will feature these athletes and their inspiring stories.

Snowboarder Amy Purdy, who lost both her legs to an infection when she was 19, said telling the stories of Paralympic athletes gives hope to those who aren’t sure what kind of life is possible for those with physical disabilities.

“People are interested in stories,” said Amy Purdy. “Stories about what these athletes go through. There are no better stories than those of Paralympians and how we got to where we are today. ... It’s going to inspire a lot of people to get involved in these sports. Just know you can overcome the obstacles, and not just overcome them but be incredible athletes. ... It’s huge. It’s changing the world in a way.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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