I Am Not an Adaptive Athlete

The labels we assign to athletes limit our appreciation of what they have accomplished.

“Never get fat.” That was the advice of Dr. Saul Maurice Bernstein, the pediatrician who first diagnosed me with left hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. Dr. Bernstein unwittingly kick-started my journey into becoming a coach. If it wasn’t for his guidance and optimism, I wouldn’t be writing this article now.

Before anyone asks, I do not compete, nor do I boast a box full of CrossFit trophies. Then who am I to become a coach? To speak of my experience? Why does this article matter?

I’ve dreamt my entire life to hoop like Kobe, hat-trick like Landon Donovan, and juke like Emmitt Smith. Yet, in a world where I am seen as an “adaptive athlete,” even if I could figure out how to do all that, I would only do it in a sphere of condescension and pity. Even in our open-minded, globalized world, I would be seen as “brave” for attempting to pursue a career in athletics.

I want to change this. I want to increase accessibility for future generations who may wish to pursue a professional athletic career, despite a disability. I want to dissolve the cultural condescension and stigma that exist around the disabled population.

Don’t Call Me What I’m Not

The issue begins with the title of “adaptive athlete.” It’s an inappropriate word choice to delineate the majority of the disabled population. Merriam-Webster defines adapt :

  1. To change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation
  2. To change (something) so that it functions better or is better suited for a purpose

If I’m running to increase my cardiovascular capacity, or lifting weights to get stronger, then I am physiologically adapting. But by that measure, every athlete is an adaptive athlete. However, this is not how the disabled population is being defined, and I’m not discussing exercise physiology.

When people speak of “adaptive athletes,” they mean those in “the process of changing to fit some purpose or situation.” As if my disability was a change to which I had to adapt! “Adaptive athletes” could apply to veterans who return from war as amputees, or when a fully able-bodied individual has a life-changing, freak accident where his identity and existence change. This description could apply to someone like Kevin Ogar. I differ from Kevin Ogar in that I was born with this disability.

However, the point I’m trying to make has little to do with clarifying who belongs in which camp; the varying degrees or types of disability is not my main concern. Rather, my goal is to help society avoid marginalizing any population. I want to communicate the kind of condescending culture the phrase “adaptive athlete” has created for the disabled population.

What I’m Doing Doesn’t Need a Label

I am not an adaptive athlete. I’m an athlete and coach, who happens to be diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Does cerebral palsy inhibit my physical capacities? Yes, it does. My physical reality has not changed since birth. I grew up with a gimpy, weaker left hand and a gait that features a natural gangster lean.

But over the years, my psychological identity changed: it became stronger and bolder. I’ve learned to embrace my disability, but not as a grievance or an accolade. It’s cool that I want to be a coach, not because I’m so brave in becoming a coach who’s disabled, but because it’s freakin’ cool that anybody wants to be a coach. It took years of introspection, a coach who embraced my unorthodox attitude, and an intrinsic desire to push my physical boundaries to become the audacious individual I am today. But physically, I haven’t changed. The main difference between myself and an everyday warrior is the drastic inefficiencies in my neurology and physiology.

We see many viral videos on social media, and some of them tend to be motivational. Some of these motivational videos champion individuals with disabilities. I find some of these motivational, viral videos to be denigrating. They glorify individuals who are simply living their normal, daily lives.

What people see as motivational, I see as disparaging. Every time I watch a “motivational” video about an individual, adult or child, physically overcoming cerebral palsy, cancer, or any other physical disorder, it brings tears to my eyes because I know there are very few people who can truly understand the struggle they’re going through. Mainly, I feel for their frustration. I understand seeing individuals overcoming the improbable is motivational, but it becomes patronizing when the individual is simply displaying an ordinary moment in life.

Don’t Assign Labels of Limitation

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the metaphor of a fly trapped in a bottle to explain how our identity and reality is shaped by the limitations of our verbiage. If this existential plight is true, how I and other similar athletes think of ourselves is shaped by how we refer to ourselves. Therefore, I propose we signify the everyday adaptive athlete the way we have done so years, with the prefix, para-. Para- denotes a departure from the normal or a contiguous path along normal. The “para-athlete” has been used by the IOC and IPC for decades in the Paralympics. The term para-athlete is more attuned with our reality than “adaptive athlete.” We are not adapting to a changing environment. We are living. In fact, we’re pretty good at it.

We’re all in this together:

CrossFit and the Real Meaning of “No Excuses”

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