Interview with Paralympic Athletes Anjali Forber-Pratt (2008 Beijing Paralympics; 2012 London Paralympics) and Nathan Dewitt (London 2012 Paralympics).
What does an average week in your training program look like?
Anjali: When I am in full on training mode, I would be training six days a week with a combination of work in my racing wheelchair on the track, the road, and in the weight room. I am still recovering from multiple surgeries, and therefore am not back to training at this level yet.
Nathan: A typical week of training usually consists of three workouts followed by a rest day and another three days training. Two of the three days are double workouts with one being at the gym and the other being in the race chair.
Where do you do most of your training? How do you plan your routes when you train off the track?
Anjali: I moved from one of the hot beds of wheelchair racing in the United States, the University of Illinois and Paralympic Training Center, that is housed with 20+ wheelchair athletes. Now, my training has mostly been at the local high school not far from where I live, paved trails nearby, and so forth. If I'm planning a longer route, it's always important to drive it first to make sure it is safe and gauge the traffic congestion too.
Nathan: Most of my training is on the track or a stationary roller training system in my garage, which is used mostly in the winter or when it's raining too heavily. My coach has areas of road picked out that focus on certain areas of my training depending on whether or not I have a competition coming up.
Strong chests and shoulders are paramount for wheelchair racers. What exercises do you do to strengthen these key muscle groups?
Anjali: I do a lot of bench press work, and medicine ball tossing too. As a sprinter, it is important to have strong chest and shoulder muscles for sure, but also important to train the fast twitch muscles to be able to respond quickly.
Nathan: I do a lot of dumbbell work, bench press, and free weights to help engage multiple muscles at a time.
Anjali Training in Chula Vista, CA
Tell us your best and worst racing moment.
Anjali: One of my best racing moments was in Switzerland in 2011 during the 200m when everything just came together that morning. It was one of those perfect "in the zone" kind of days, and I broke the world record. I have since lost the record (to a fellow American racer, Jessica Galli) but it was a special moment for me, and one that I had been chasing for quite some time.
One of my worst racing moments was my very first Paralympic Games in Beijing China for the 100m race. I placed a lot of pressure on myself for that particular race, because it was my favorite and the one I had put so much time and effort into during my training. When the starting gun went off, the best way to describe what happened was that I forgot I was in a race! Not a good time to have that happen . . . . Instead of being first off the line, which I usually am in the sprints, I allowed myself to be distracted by my competitors, realized they were two chair lengths ahead of me, and that I was in a race at the Paralympics. By the time I pieced all that together, the race was over. That was a tough day in the office for sure, but filled with learning experiences for me.
Nathan: My best racing moment was qualifying for the 100m finals at the London 2012 Paralympics. My worst racing moment was having to miss a full day of racing and almost half of the next day because my race chair didn't arrive at my destination.
What speeds do you reach in your racing chair? How about in your non-racing chair?
Anjali: In my racing chair I can hit about 22 mph (35 km/h) on the flats and upwards of 40 mph (64 km/h) with the assistance of gravity going down a hill. In my everyday chair, it's hard for me to gauge because I don't often push that chair to reach a top speed (unless I'm trying to race through an airport to make a tight connection!) I would guess we average similar walking speeds, so 3-5 mph (8 km/h) at a leisurely pace and probably about 10-12mph (17 km/h) if trying to book it through an airport!
Nathan: I reach speeds of 25-30 km/h on the track and going down hill I reach speeds of 36 km/h. I only have a race chair. I walk otherwise.
Nathan racing in Kelowna, Canada.
What do you do if your racing chair has a technical problem in the race?
Anjali: Hope that it will hold together enough to get you across the finish line! In road races, we carry a spare tire and CO2 cartridge and will stop to repair a flat tire on the side of the road, but as a sprinter, there's not really time for equipment errors during a race. This is why it's important to be diligent about equipment checks and making sure things are all in working order ahead of time.
Nathan: As long as the nuts and bolts are tight before a race, the technical problems that come up are not a big issue and I am able to finish the race.
Anjali, you race marathon and sprint distances. What is your preferred distance?
Anjali: SPRINTS! A funny story about my "marathoning" career is that my very first marathon was the Chicago Marathon in 2010. My coach, Adam Bleakney, did not ask me if I wanted to do the Chicago Marathon, however. He called me up and asked me how I felt about doing 422 hundred-meter sprints sometime in the middle of October. That was one of the toughest races I've ever done, both mentally and physically. Low and behold, I ran a qualifying time for Boston that year, and since I grew up near the 8 mile marker, I could not pass up the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. So, I ran Boston in April 2011, and finished 4th.
Nathan, do you train using any cross sports? Would you ever consider competing in something other than wheelchair racing?
Nathan: I used to play Sledge Hockey for cross training. If I would consider competing in another sport it would either be Sledge Hockey or Snow Skiing
Anjali, I read that as a teenager you were into downhill skiing. What other sports do you currently practice? Would you ever consider competing in something other than wheelchair racing?
Anjali: I am a sports buff, yes. I will try anything once! I do still ski when I can. I also enjoy kayaking, swimming, rock climbing. If an opportunity presented itself to compete in something else, I might consider it!
Anjali at Breckenridge, CO for Ski Spec
Which paralympic sport do you find most interesting as a spectator?
Anjali: Ooooh, this is a tough question. On the summer side, I enjoy watching wheelchair basketball and rugby. On the winter side, I could watch skiing everyday and be perfectly happy.
Nathan: I find Sledge Hockey most interesting as a spectator.
Anjali, You competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and you were a team member at the 2012 London Paralympics. Do you plan on competing in the 2016 Paralympics?
Anjali: I don't know yet. I don't want to rule it out, but I've had some significant medical complications and changes since the London 2012 Games. I have had multiple major surgeries. In the end of September 2012, just ten days after representing the USA in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, I underwent a major back surgery. The surgery itself went fine, but post-surgery I began having life-threatening complications and did in fact code a week after surgery. I spent a month in the hospital and for four weeks there was nothing but questions and very little answers to what was going on. I only knew that something wasn’t right. They kept ordering more and more tests and everything was coming up normal or inconclusive and my symptoms were fluctuating making it very difficult for doctors to figure out. For the next eight months, I was learning to live as an incomplete quadriplegic until I had another major surgery which helped to reverse some of the challenges I was having. I've had a lot of ups and downs since then, but if I am able to make a comeback, it will be a comeback of a lifetime!
There are major differences between the Olympics and the Paralympics, one being that the 2012 London Olympics sold 8.8 million tickets, while the Paralympics sold two million. What do you hope to change or see changed in the Paralympics?
Anjali: This is definitely changing. For example, in London at the Paralympic Games our events sold out! We also saw people scalping tickets on the streets! The international awareness about the Paralympic Games has grown tremendously throughout my lifetime, and I project it will continue to do so. I hope that Paralympic athletes' names become household names the same way that we speak about other accomplished athletes without disabilities.
Nathan: I hope people become more aware that a Paralympic athlete is not lesser of an athlete than an Olympian. We put in the same amount of effort and dedication, if not more. Awareness is improving. Media and disabled athletes are educating the public on Paralympic Sports.
What advice can you give other athletes, both with and without disabilities?
Anjali: My advice, regardless of whether you have a disability or not, is to ©Dream. Drive. Do. This is my motto. ©Dream. Drive. Do. is a positive message that resonates with the general population. We all have the ability to dream. As a kid, I had very distinct dreams and hopes for my future, and while there were plenty of people I encountered who doubted my abilities or me, I held on to my dreams with conviction. It is more powerful to frame your life through a positive lens, though, and so by turning “don’t quit” into a positive, I settled on the word, “drive.” With any dream you set out to achieve, there will always be obstacles. This is where “drive” comes in. But to me, obstacles are just opportunities in disguise. As trying as these times were in my life, they have also given me the gumption to want to pay it forward and to “do” what I can to make sure that other individuals know about the opportunities that do exist for them in the world. ©Dream. Drive. Do. is a way to take control over your life and interrogate your own identities and values to unleash your potential.
Nathan: Hard work and dedication pays off. If you want to achieve something set your mind to it. Put in the time and effort and it will happen.
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Nathan has been a wheelchair racer since 2007. He won the Avchen Pinkard Rookie of the Year Award 2007 (Wheelchair Race Series) and the BC Athlete with a Disablity of the Year 2007 (BC Atheltics). His coach is James Hustvedt and he races for the BC Wheelchair Sports Association. He belongs to Wheelchair Race Series that is part of BC Wheelchair sports. Visit Nathan's profile at www.athletics.ca and on his blog NathanDewitt2012.blogspot.de.
Anjali J. Forber-Pratt, Ph.D. is Assistant Research Professor at the Beach Center on Disability and Kansas University Center for Developmental Disabilities at the University of Kansas. She is currently assisting with a study to develop a measure of self-determination for students with and without disabilities. Dr. Forber-Pratt has a strong background in qualitative methodology and her research focuses on individuals who struggle to succeed due, in part, to some difference that has labeled them outside the mainstream. Those differences include, and are not limited to, disability, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Her work cuts across education (elementary, secondary, postsecondary), sports, work, and quality of life contexts. Outside of the academy, Dr. Forber-Pratt was also a member of Team USA at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games. As a Paralympic medalist in the sport of wheelchair racing, she has dedicated her life to helping others recognize their potential. Globally, she is involved with disability advocacy efforts related to access to education, employment and sport through public speaking and media appearances. She has been actively involved to help create inclusive sport opportunities for individuals with disabilities in Bermuda, India and Ghana. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) has also recognized her leadership abilities by awarding her the prestigious 2013 Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award, given to emerging leaders within the national disability community. Dr. Forber-Pratt has appeared on several television programs and radio shows including: NPR; The Stream; and Sesame Street; and has been quoted in the national print press, including The Boston Globe, New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, and Runner’s World. She was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change in 2013 and had an opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion with President Obama about disability policy issues. Read more about Anjali at her website, AnjaliForberpratt.com.