Separate and unequal? These Paralympians want to compete alongside Olympians

Tatyana McFadden (C) competes at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Getty Images

One of the biggest misconceptions about Paralympians is that they only compete during the Paralympics. But para sport doesn’t just happen once every four (or five) years. Away from the Paralympic Games, most athletes compete multiple times each year at a variety of domestic and international events. 

However, not all of these events are equal. And it’s rare that they receive the attention they deserve. On Her Turf spoke with four medalists from the Tokyo Paralympics – Tatyana McFadden, McKenzie Coan, Allysa Seely, and Brittni Mason – about their hopes for the para sport community going forward. 

Tatyana McFadden’s busy fall marathon schedule

Earlier this month, Tatyana McFadden departed the Tokyo Paralympics with three newly minted medals, bringing her career total to 20. While in Tokyo, the 32-year-old competed in six track & field events, everything from the mixed gender 4x100m universal relay (where she anchored the U.S. to gold in a world record time) to the marathon (where she set a personal best, finishing fifth).

But if you think she’s ready for a break, think again. “The season is just starting for me,” McFadden told On Her Turf last week.

This fall, McFadden is planning to enter five of the six World Marathon Majors, including Chicago and Boston on back-to-back days:

  • September 26: Berlin
  • October 3: London
  • October 10: Chicago
  • October 11: Boston
  • November 7: New York City

McFadden has plenty of experience racing multiple marathons in the same year. In 2013, she became the first person to complete a marathon “Grand Slam” (winning four major marathons in a year). She then repeated the feat four years in a row.

But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual marathon schedule – which usually begins in early March with the Tokyo Marathon and concludes in early November with the New York City Marathon – has instead been condensed into seven weeks.

“It is the first time in history that all of marathons will be compacted like that,” McFadden said. “I think I’m going to be the only woman to do the American three so I’m very excited for that.”

Away from the Paralympic Games, competitive opportunities vary widely by sport

Swimmer McKenzie Coan, who won two medals in Tokyo, was planning for her next meet before she even left Japan. “The minute I got on the plane to come home from the Games, I was already thinking about Nationals,” Coan said. On her first day back in the U.S., she was in the pool at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

After Nationals in December, the 25-year-old is planning to compete at some world series meets next spring, followed by the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal, in June. But while Coan is eager to take advantage of whatever competitive opportunities are open to her, she is more limited than McFadden.

McFadden – as a marathoner – is able to do something most Paralympians can’t: compete at the same events – on the same day, at the same venue – as able-bodied athletes.

The World Marathon Majors are one of the only elite sporting events that features this parallel competition format. Wheelchair tennis – along with triathlon – are two of the other sports that regularly hold side-by-side competitions for elite able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities.

“For a lot of people, it’s easy to underestimate Paralympians or Paralympic sport because – often times – it is not played next to Olympic sport,” said Allysa Seely, who won gold in the women’s PTS2 triathlon at the Tokyo Paralympics. “Having our races and events next to the Olympic side is awesome.”

Tokyo, Japan - Team USA's Allysa Seely celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's PTS2 triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Tokyo, Japan – Team USA’s Allysa Seely celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women’s PTS2 triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Coan knows the feeling. In the past, USA Swimming’s “Pro Swim Series” meets have occasionally included Paralympians and Paralympic hopefuls competing alongside the best able-bodied swimmers in the country.

“We’d be on the deck with Nathan Adrian and Katie Ledecky,” Coan recalled. “I just thought it was awesome to be on a pool deck together. That’s the way it should be.”

Coan hopes this joint format is utilized more in the future. She believes Olympians and Paralympians competing side-by-side helps debunk misconceptions about disability while increasing awareness of the Paralympic Games.

“We are the same elite-level athletes. This isn’t playtime,” Coan said. “Legitimacy within the public eye is what we’re missing at this point.”

Sprinter Brittni Mason, who won three medals in her Paralympic debut in Tokyo, only recently started competing in para track meets. Born with Erb’s palsy, which affects the mobility of her left shoulder and arm, she grew up running against able-bodied athletes and went on to compete at Division I Eastern Michigan University.

Tokyo, Japan - Brittni Mason (left) competes in the final of the women's T47 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Mason went on to claim silver. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Tokyo, Japan – Brittni Mason (left) competes in the final of the women’s T47 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Mason went on to claim the silver medal. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

As a collegiate athlete, Mason’s competition schedule was often more robust than that of many of her Paralympic competitors and teammates. While the para track & field season usually starts in mid-spring, and doesn’t feature indoor meets, Mason was able to run the indoor season at Eastern Michigan.

“Having those races leading up to your outdoor season, it gives you more time,” Mason said. “It’s one thing to work out and practice. It’s another thing to compete. For me specifically, I have to run races in order to know where I’m at and know what to fix.”

Paralympians and Olympians competing side-by-side? It’s not a radical idea

The idea of athletes with disabilities competing alongside able-bodied athletes is not revolutionary. In fact, this concept is central to the origin story of the Paralympic movement.

The first known competition for athletes in wheelchairs was organized by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. Dubbed the Stoke Mandeville Games – named for the hospital in Great Britain where Guttmann worked – 16 athletes took part in an archery competition on July 29, 1948.

The date of the competition was intentional. That same afternoon, just over 30 miles away at Wembley Stadium, the Olympic cauldron was lit during the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics.

The same thinking is also evident in the name that was adopted when the Stoke Mandeville Games rebranded as the Paralympic Games in 1960. The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para,” which means beside or alongside.

And yet, 60 years later, for many athletes with disabilities, access to playing fields, swimming pools, and basketball courts is still a work in progress.

Separate and unequal: access to sport remains elusive for some athletes with disabilities

McFadden is very familiar with how stigma and stereotypes can act as barriers to what is supposed to be a human right. As a freshman at Atholton High School in Columbia Maryland, she was prohibited from racing at the same time as her able-bodied track teammates. School officials, citing safety concerns, required McFadden to compete alone, circling the empty track by herself.

McFadden and her family filed suit against the Howard County Public School System, requesting that student-athletes with disabilities receive equal competitive access. The McFadden family won the case, which later paved the way for a state law, and then a nationwide mandate.

Tatyana McFadden celebrates with her moms, Bridget O'Shaughnessey (R) and Debbie McFadden (L), after winning the women's wheelchair division at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Tatyana McFadden celebrates with her moms, Bridget O’Shaughnessey (R) and Debbie McFadden (L), after winning the women’s wheelchair division at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

While McFadden helped create opportunities for the next generation to participate, she is grateful for other trailblazers who fought to allow athletes like her compete at elite events. That list includes Bob Hall, who in 1975 became the first sanctioned wheelchair racer to enter the Boston Marathon. He finished the race in under three hours.

“That’s why wheelchair racers can do it,” McFadden said. “He was the one that started the movement. It takes that one person to say, ‘Let’s do this.'”

Other marathons followed Boston’s lead, though not all at once. Berlin was next, adding a men’s wheelchair division in 1981 and a women’s wheelchair division in 1983. London also added wheelchair categories in 1983, followed by Chicago in 1984.

The New York City Marathon was the longest holdout, adding elite wheelchair races in 2000, though only after the New York Road Runners Club was sued for discrimination and settled out of court.

“I don’t just want to sit here and be thankful that we’re here”

There is no denying that the Paralympic movement has made substantial progress in recent years. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics received increased television coverage, saw a record number of women compete, and marked the first Summer Paralympics that American Olympians and Paralympians received equal prize money from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

But Coan, who made her Paralympic debut almost a decade ago in 2012, said she struggles to balance her appreciation for all that has changed with her desire to make sure progress doesn’t stop now.

“Just because something is better doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great or good,” she said. “I don’t just want to sit here and be thankful that we’re here. I want something better, not only for myself, but for the next generation. I want them to have funding, I want them to have exposure.”

Seely, who has been competing internationally as triathlete since 2012, has her own wish list of changes, from wanting harder courses for para athletes to a sliver of the prize money awarded to able-bodied athletes.

“Athletes on the Olympic side are paid prize money at almost every event they go to, from the third-tier of elite racing all the way up to the top tier,” Seely explained. “Athletes on the Paralympic side do not receive a dollar in prize money in any race we attend.”

Seely was especially disappointed when World Triathlon’s Executive Board announced earlier this year that it was increasing the bonus prize pool for able-bodied athletes from $750,000 in 2021 to $1 million for the 2022 season.

“I think our federation made a pretty clear statement when they added extra hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Olympic prize purse before ever considering putting up a dollar for para athletes,” she said.

“This is something we see in society, across the globe. Individuals with disabilities are underpaid, undervalued, and discriminated against. In many ways, I think it’s similar to gender discrimination women have faced in sport for a long time.”

The importance of the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics

The 2012 London Paralympics – which are considered the gold standard in the Paralympic movement – are credited with helping create a significant shift in attitudes towards disability in Great Britain.

So while the 2024 Paris Paralympics are now less than three years away, many U.S. Paralympians are already excited for 2028, when Los Angeles will host both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. “We have the opportunity of a lifetime,” Coan said.

McKenzie Coan (C) and fellow Team USA swimmers prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics at a practice session at Yokota Air Base in August 2021. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)
McKenzie Coan (C) and fellow Team USA Paralympians prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics at a practice session at Yokota Air Base in August 2021. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Coan and McFadden both plan to compete on home soil in 2028. To do so, they will need to qualify for the U.S. team, just like always. But both athletes hope that – seven years from now, if not sooner – the U.S. qualification process looks different.

Ahead of the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, the U.S. held held Paralympic “Super Trials.” This past June, while Olympic track & field hopefuls were competing at Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Paralympic hopefuls in three sports (track & field, swimming, cycling) converged on Minneapolis to vye for roster spots.

But despite the billing of this event, it did not feel particularly “super” to McFadden.

“At Trials, it kind of felt like we were not important. I don’t understand why we need to go to a separate place, pick up our bibs in a parking lot, and run on a high school track. We should be in Eugene at the beautiful, new, grand stadium that was built,” she said.

Coan feels similarly. “That’s how it should be in my eyes. We should be in Omaha with our able-bodied counterparts,” she said, referring to the city that has hosted U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials since 2008. “[We’re all] elite athletes looking to represent their country.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Gender inequity report: NCAA spends far less on women’s championships

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC