Paralympic Players Say They Need More Support As Games Approach


Gold medalist, mentally retarded runner Mikey Brannigan still remembers the stress and confusion of being lost at an airport.

In 2016, Brannigan was unaccompanied as he flew to a team training camp ahead of the Rio Paralympics. Brannigan’s father, Kevin Brannigan, said his son missed contact and could not find another flight path for hours.

“It was a lot harder since I was flying alone,” said Mikey Brannigan. “I felt bad for missing my flight and was worried I wouldn’t be able to attend the California training at Chula Vista.”

Brannigan’s disturbing experience illustrates the type of challenges many athletes with physical and mental disabilities face when traveling to compete. With the Tokyo Paralympic Games kicking off on August 24, some American athletes and their advocates, including members of Congress, point to stories like his, while criticizing the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee for not providing the support they deem necessary.

“Athletes with disabilities can only compete at this level when they have access to the necessary support and adjustments they need to be successful,” New Hampshire Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan said in a letter to the committee. “They shouldn’t be forced to go to the Tokyo Olympics without the support they need, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.” Two U.S. senators from Maryland, hometown of governor and champion swimmer Becca Meyers, echoed Hassan’s concerns.

The problem is not new, but it gained renewed attention last month after three-time Paralympic gold medalist Meyers, who was deaf and blind, removed herself from the United States Paralympic swimming list because her mother, Maria, would not be allowed to accompany her. him in Tokyo. Since 26-year-old Becca had a harrowing experience at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Maria Meyers has been traveling regularly with the USA team to help her daughter.

Meyers’ Withdrawal on 20 Julyfirst reported by Washington post, was not a dramatic final attempt to get approval for her mother to travel to Tokyo. Meyers said he had accepted by then that he wouldn’t have the support he needed to swim in Tokyo, adding to his collection of six Paralympic medals from London and Rio. He now pursued a broader goal: to raise awareness of the complications elite athletes with disabilities routinely face, and to push for a better fit for their needs.

“I speak to start a conversation so we can make change and protect future generations,” Meyers said in an interview. “No one should be afraid of Team USA”

Other American Paralympics, past and present, and their families responded to Meyers’ announcement by describing their difficulties in obtaining sufficient resources to safely compete at the elite level. Logistics at the games has been particularly challenging this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to bans on international spectators and restrictions on the size of each country’s delegation. But the Paralympics said the USOPC’s support for athletes with disabilities was lacking prior to the pandemic.

“Our goal is to ensure that all athletes are supported within our staff structure,” the USOPC said in a statement.

Some athletes say the staff structure can leave significant gaps in support.

Hannah McFadden, a two-time U.S. Paralympic wheelchair racer, said she and her five-time Paralympic sister, Tatyana McFadden, follow a routine when flying home from international competitions. After they get off the plane, they wait to make sure their blind teammates have someone to direct them to the port. If not, McFaddens helps.

“Most of the time we will have visually impaired athletes traveling on their own hoping they will meet up with a teammate, so it gets a little crazy,” said Hannah McFadden.

The USOPC cited restrictions on the size of national delegations as the reason Maria Meyers was not included in the team going to the Paralympics.

Still, many of Becca Meyers’ supporters noted that the restrictions do not force Olympic golfers to manage without grooms to care for their horses, or to play without equestrian competitors. Meyers and fellow Paralympics said the disparity in defining key personnel reflects a persistent misunderstanding of what constitutes fair treatment for athletes with disabilities.

Linda Mastandrea, a disability legal expert who was a past Paralympic wheelchair racer, questioned whether athletes like Brannigan and Meyers were getting what they needed to be safe and thrive under the housing laws of the disabled.

“Becca and athletes like her need the services of a personal assistant,” said Mastandrea. “It’s a tool that allows them to compete, like a guide runner for a blind athlete or a caddy for a golfer.”

For Meyers, the 2016 Rio Paralympics were a turning point. The USOPC has not appointed a personal care assistant to the swim team, although Meyers’s vision has deteriorated since joining the 2012 Paralympics and there are other blind swimmers on the team.

In response to emailed inquiries, the USOPC said swim team coaches, staff and teammates were ready to support Meyers in 2016. However, Meyers said they were either too busy or not knowledgeable enough to help him.

“No one took the time to guide me and tell me where to go,” he said. “I just felt paralyzed.”

Meyers said she struggled to find her way around the Paralympic Village, especially in the dining room, and had barely eaten for several days. At one point, she said she was sobbing on the floor of her room with her plans to withdraw from the competition and go home.

He was unable to eat properly and regain his strength until the coaches allowed him to leave his Paralympic Village and stay with his family. Experience has driven Meyers to make sure he always has a personal assistant while traveling for competitions.

Swimmer Larry Sapp, an American record-breaking intellectual, is raising money online for his mother and usual travel mate Dee Sapp to accompany him to the Paralympics because he is not part of the team.

“Larry needs his companion and caregiver to provide the care he needs while away from home,” he said in a GoFundMe post, explaining that the cost will be around $10,000.

“This is a financial Everest,” the post said.

The family refused to talk further on the matter.

Without a companion on his own journey, Brannigan experienced more complications even after he found the connecting flight for his trip to California training camp. At camp, Brannigan accidentally took another athlete’s bike for a ride and misplaced it when he got back, creating a tension that his father believed could have been avoided had he been assigned to supervise him individually.

“He needs a lot of attention and they’re really unaware of it,” said Kevin Brannigan.

He said he was considering withdrawing his son from this year’s Games after he recently learned that he wouldn’t be able to get the constant one-on-one oversight he deemed necessary for the family’s safety.

Since 2016, Brannigan’s family has been paying for personal coach Sonja Robinson to be by her side at all times. However, his coach for the Tokyo Paralympic Games has not been officially designated as part of the team. Instead, he was given a pass that allowed him to work with Brannigan during training and competition, but prohibited him from accompanying Brannigan to their living or dining area.

The distinction, which they learned in mid-July after requesting Robinson’s inclusion in the team roster, means the Brannigans will have to pay Robinson’s expenses. They launched a GoFundMe campaign asking for $15,000 donations.

Kevin Brannigan says he was told that a coach on the national team would watch his son when Robinson wasn’t around. The USOPC said the coach has worked with and successfully supported Brannigan in the past.

But coach Rosalyn Clark said she will also be responsible for supervising her daughter, Breanna Clark, another Paralympic track champion with mental disabilities. Brannigan’s needs are different from her daughter’s, Clark said, and she believes they should both have their own caregivers.

“I can’t say I’m authorized to provide everything Mikey needs because I don’t know him,” Rosalyn Clark said.

Kevin Brannigan said that when his son is injured, he doesn’t always tell others — especially people he’s not close to — to the point where his injuries may go untreated for days. The Brannigans learned belatedly that their son once tore a muscle in his leg during a competition. After Mikey Brannigan told others, including the medical staff, that he was fine, he finally told his personal coach that he was in pain.

In Meyers’ case, he relies most on his mother to help him with his needs. For every competition since 2016, Meyers said the USOPC has refused to make her mother an official part of the team, and also pushed back against repeated requests from Meyers’ mother to accompany her as an unofficial personal assistant, which Meyers said for her. It meant he had to pay. mother’s expenses on each trip.

“I had to fight for it every year,” he said.

Gwen Knapp contributed to the reporting.


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