A group of little girls (maybe nine years old) asked me to adopt them today. Our interpreter haad to double check to make sure he understood them correctly, but indeed, they were asking, with adorable smiles on their faces, if I would adopt them.
(little know fact about me... girls between the ages of 9 and 13, and 40+ LOVE me. I don't havve nearly the same effect on the 20-35 year old crowd, but that's another story).
Rio has been full on (to borrow an aussie phrase)! I'm barely two days in and it has already beeen a trip that will be rooted in my soul for the rest of my life. I am exhausted, gratified, humbled, empassioned, motivated and thrilled. These are the trrips that remind me I human, and they make me truly appreciate the path my life has bbeen allowed to take.
Brief point of reiteration, I am spending the week touring through Rio with insane, superstar, stud olympic sprinter Allyson Felix, speaking to and training kids on behalf of the US State Department. It is the first time ever that a Paralypian and Olympian have been teamed together for a Sports Envoy trip, and if I wasn't humbled enough meeting Allyson, the fact that i'm the first Paralympian ever used did the trick.
Our journey began as the invited guests to the headquarters of Rio 2016, the organization responsible for planning the entire 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We took a tour of their modular (and temporary) headquarters, before a presentation about the progress of the facility's construction.
The vibe in that building was incredible. Every step of planning is so athlete centric that it brought tears to my eyes. It also got me way to excited for the next Paralympics than I should be two years out. While at the headquarters Allyson and I posed for numberous pictures and fulfilled a bunch of other media obligations. I had the honor of being interviewed for page 2 of Globus, the largest newspaper in Brazil. My transcribed interview appeared in the paper this morning and I am now famous with the hotel staff. It's kinda fun.
Today began the real reason we are here, however. We spent the day navigating Rio traffic and speaking to kids about positive focus, overcoming obstacles, and more generic athletic topics. Stop one was an institution that caters to people with physical and mental disabilities. Brazil is pushing the Parlaympic movement very hard, but their society is still far from easy for anyone with a disability. Children with disabilities go to separate schools, and interaction with able-bodied children is limited. This spurs all the social-psychological issues that you imagine it would.
On this visit, however, they brought in about 20 able-bodied kids from a neighboring school to participate alongside the kids with disabilities. Allyson and I made a point to run our clinic with the group combined and fully integrated. It is a small hit, but hopefully it helps begin the process of reimagining disability. The girls that wanted me to adopt them were able-bodied, so I know that they have lost all prejudice, if nothing else.
From there we went to an Olympic sports club in the heart of one of the Favelahs. The favelahs are the poorest neighborhoods in Rio. Until recently, they were all entirely unincorporated entities that were constructed by the poor completely outside of government control. It was explained to me that they began popping up on the hillsides that the government was slow to develop, but the favelahs overpower the historically incorporated parts of the city by a vast amount.
I know that we have extreme poverty in the US, but I don't believe it is anything like what is going on here. The structures these people live in are nothing more that cinderblock cubes stacked one on top of the other. They steal their electricity from the city, have no running water or garbage removal. They are also almost entirely run by drug cartels.
Once Rio won the bid for 2016, however, the government immediately began incorporating paarts of the favelahs and trying to push out the controling cartels. As you might expect, this has only been mildly successful so far, but the locals here have said that it is significantly better than it ever has been and that the government is dedicated to the cause.
It is in one of these favelahs that we led our second clinic. We were at a facility that serves the kids of the favelah, and there were plenty of hidden gems of talent. The kids were amazing. They asked well thought questions and were a lot of fun to work with on the track. At his request, I sent one of their triple-jumpers away with the team USA t-shirt I was wearing. Allyson and I signed it, and he will be taking it with him to the Brazilian nationals in a few weeks (a meet that to qualify for, especially with his background, is a huge feat).
After talking all day, I was more than happy to eat dinner alone on Copacabana beach this evening. The beach is flat beautiful. I'll hopefully make it around the bend to Ipanema later this week, but for now I'm enjoying the spot they've put us up in.
More Brazil: Today was more of the same, which is not a bad thing. I am coming back after eating at a wonderful brazilian steakhouse with Allyson, her brother and a dude name Kai and his family. Kai is from Philly and was recruited by one of the richest men in brazil from running an amazing charter school in Brooklyn to come down to here and run schools here. That is how the brazilians do. If they have the resources they don't rely on the government to do anything, they do it themselves (even if they don't have the resources they do it themselves, hence the favelas).
Today we visited a paralympic training facility called Andef. It was the first ever faciity of its kind and they are trying to do the right things in terms of disability rights, inclusion and immersion, as we were drilled repeatedly in by long winded lectures from impassioned directors. It really is a great facility in the "it's the thought that counts" category. They seriously have their heads in the right place with the ideas they have and what they are tryig to do. As all things Brazil, however, the problems lay in the execution.
The facility is only ten years old and looks and feels like it is at least 40. It is supposed to be incredibly accessible, but it is built on giant steps up the side of a hill, with each level attached by never ending ramps, or incredibly steep roads (like roads that i struggled to push up. If i am struggling, there are not many wheelchair users in the world that can make it up).
They are trying to do it right, though. The facility was developed for people with disabilities and has been opened to the entire able bodied community to come join the party. I love their principles.
Beyond that, there aren't too many details to share. We talked all morning, watch a dance routine the incorporated both able-bodied and disabled dancers (and some pretty sweet moves, actually), and then played with kids and ran them through some drills. The kids loved me again and I got to do a bunch of laps with them as they were doing their drils.
Then came the interviews. After three days of getting asked the same questions multiple times a day, your mind begins to wander into the realm of what your answer really is. For example, they keep asking me something like, "after three paralympics and so many medals, what is your motivation to keep racing?"
My answer is always a bit kosher. "I'm motivated by potential. I don't believe that i have yet reached the outer realm of my potential and I am excited to find out where that boundary rests," or some bullshit like that. I'm here on behalf of the state dept. and the guys have to translate my drivle into portuguese. k.i.s.s. keep it simple stupid.
But what is my real answer? how can I tell them that the reason I keep racing is because I feel like I am a deeply flawed individual and that, for however fleeting the feeling lasts, racing provides the opportunity to reach a level of awareness in which i feel perfect, immortal? How during these fleeting moments, when I am so in tune with my body that i literally feel nothing, that time loses meaning and i can both see from within and without at the same time, however these occasions happen so infrequently i can count them on three fingers. How the high that accompanies this feeling is so addicting that i put myself through hours and weeks and years of intense physical and psychological strain, just for the possibility of feeling this high again. Or how the only other avenue in my life for attaining this high is in the naked embrace of an impassioned lover and how, in america at least, impassioned lovers are incredibly hard to find.
how to tell a kind, unsuspecting, brazilan reporter this, even though that is the truth? Well, you don't. But that doesn't stop my mind from wandering as i answer the same question in the same way for the third day in a row.