" I wasn’t just part of the US team. I was a Paralympian – a member of a global family of disabled people, all united by our belief in the power of sport to change the world for the better, and that our disabilities were what made us powerful, not what made us weak." Jen, United Kingdom

Wednesday 7th September

Last week, a young friend came to visit me for a final catch-up before she headed off to Rio for her first Paralympics. As a veteran of three Paralympics, two as an athlete and one as a coach, I took it upon myself to shower her with unsolicited advice, filling a Good Luck card with three pages of what I titled “Tips from an Old Paralympian to a New Paralympian”.

At the top of my list was this one simple piece of advice: No matter what anyone says, go to the Opening Ceremony.

If you’re not an athlete or a coach, that might seem like an odd thing to even mention – after all, isn’t it a given that Paralympic athletes march in the Opening Ceremony? Yet, in recent years it has become common for coaches and administrators to advise athletes to sit out the ceremony. Sometimes this is because of legitimate worries about a late night close to the start of competition, but more and more it seems to come from a desire to keep athletes focused and avoid distractions, as if keeping them in a small, tightly controlled cocoon of pre-event preparation will allow them to perform better when it matters.

I can see the logic in that argument – and I’ve coached athletes who struggled to cope with all the distractions that a first Paralympics can bring. But I also feel grateful that my coaches never subscribed to that philosophy, because if they had, I would have missed out on one of the defining moments of my life.

When I was 18, I was selected to the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team, and after years of training (and dreaming of one day becoming a Paralympian), I found myself at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, my dream finally a reality.

On the night of the Opening Ceremony, our twelve-woman-squad excitedly changed into our parade uniform, an excruciatingly old-fashioned combination of blue pleated trousers, white blouse and red button-front vest, with a red and blue silk neck scarf and a white wide-brimmed hat that made us look like flight attendants for a budget Caribbean airline. Yet we were grinning from ear to ear, so proud to be wearing USA on our chests, no matter what fashion crimes we were committing.

We piled into a bus and made our way to Stadium Australia, where we were ushered to our spot near the back of a mile-long queue of athletes outside the stadium, the “U” of United States of America placing us alphabetically near the end of the parade, and close to our Australian friends and rivals who would be the last to enter the stadium. A friendly exchange of chants started going back and forth between our two teams, with dozens of Americans shouting “USA! USA!”, while the Australians answered back with a boisterous “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oy Oy Oy!”.

After about 15 minutes, suddenly our chants were drowned out by an enormous roar from the stadium. We all went silent, stunned by the magnitude of the chorus of cheers coming from inside. I realised that the ceremony must have just started, and I felt my heart jump into my throat. Could that roar have been for real? Just how many people were inside, waiting for us to come in?

You see, up to that moment, the largest crowd I’d ever played in front of was probably about 20 people and composed largely of people related to me and my teammates – and I had certainly never competed in an event with enough spectators to make it worth holding an Opening Ceremony. Wheelchair basketball and the Paralympic Games were virtually unheard of in the United States. When our local paper did a profile on me before I left for Australia, the article ended up in the Features section, not the Sports section – they wouldn’t even put it in the back of the Sports pages, amongst all the high school sports news. I had to explain to the reporter that it was spelt “Paralympics” and not “Para-Olympics” – and that the games were being staged by the same organisers as for the Olympics. That may seem odd now, with the high profile that the Games has in Britain, but back then, in the US, Paralympic athletes weren’t seen as ‘real’ athletes – we were just a curiosity, a source of faux inspiration for a public that seemed surprised that we didn’t just give up on life and sit inside all day, if they thought about us at all.

But now I was outside a Stadium full of thousands of people who had actually paid for tickets to celebrate the moment that I would officially become a Paralympian.  As the ceremony continued, and the Parade of Athletes started, we eventually found ourselves in a dark tunnel in the bowels of the stadium, a glimpse of the crowd just barely visible ahead. The flash of thousands of cameras made the darkness sparkle – and then I heard them, those four magic words echoing across the stadium: “United States of America”.

Moments later, we emerged from the darkness out into the brightness of the stadium lights, and my eyes welled up with tears – there weren’t just thousands of people, there were tens of thousands.

So many people that it was a seemingly endless blur of faces and flags and flashes. As we paraded around, by some absolute miracle I looked over to my left and spotted my family, ten rows into the front section, shouting and waving, their eyes as wet as mine, struggling to believe that this moment was real.

And then I looked out across at the sea of Paralympic athletes surrounding me and it finally hit me, an almost spiritual realisation. I wasn’t just part of the US team. I was a Paralympian – a member of a global family of disabled people, all united by our belief in the power of sport to change the world for the better, and that our disabilities were what made us powerful, not what made us weak.

All of us, no matter where we came from, shared a common experience in life, of being told that we were less important, that our impairments were something to hide away or “overcome”, that our life stories were tragedies, sad cautionary stories designed to make “normal” people appreciate their own lives. That our bodies were broken, in need of repair. That our prospects in life were limited, and our futures bleak. And all of us, every single one of us, had rejected that narrative and fought back – with our paths in life leading up to this one shared moment in a stadium in Sydney.

I’ve never felt so connected to humanity – and in that moment, I decided to commit my life to making that fight possible for other disabled people like me, all around the world, who were still at home unaware of a different path in life.

That journey eventually brought me to a career at Motivation, where I’ve been lucky enough to work with inspiring people from all over the world who share that vision of a world where disabled people live free of the obstacles that prevent so many of us from leading full, healthy, happy lives.

It took me another four years to finally win a gold medal – our performance in Sydney was in all honesty a bit of a flop, with a heart-breaking fifth place finish.

But I didn’t board that plane back to America empty-handed – I brought home a mission in life and an identity as a member of a global community.  And I treasure that identity every bit as much as the Gold medal sitting on the mantle in our living room.