Carrying the torch
Jan Wilson, the director of alumni relations and career services in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture, was eating breakfast with her husband in their Blacksburg home one morning this July when she received an e-mail she wasn’t expecting – inviting her to carry the 2012 Paralympic torch in London.
Although she competed in swimming in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Paralympics games, won 12 medals and worked at several other Paralympics games, Wilson hadn’t planned to participate in the London Paralympic games – until she was asked to bear the torch.
Standing at the bottom of London’s Tower Bridge, she carried the flame toward the Olympic stadium, just as she has carried the cause of equality for all athletes in her life.
Wilson is an amputee. Her right leg was amputated above her knee in 1975 after she developed a cancerous tumor on her leg. At only 20 years old, Wilson was left wondering what to do. In the end, she did what she’d been doing before the cancer and amputation — she swam.
“It made me feel normal,” she said, to get back into the competitive sport she’d been doing since she was a child. “It gave me my self back and my confidence back.”
Wilson won a bronze medal in swimming in 1980 and realized she wanted to train harder.
In the 1984 games, she won seven medals, including a gold in the 100 meter breast stroke, in which she broke the world record at the time.
“I realized hard work really pays off,” she said.
Wilson returned to her last Paralympics competition in 1988 and came away with four medals.
After retiring from competition, Wilson eventually served as executive director of the U.S. Amputee Athletic Association and assisted with the organization of committees for both the Olympics and the Paralympics for games between 1992 and 2006.
While she was working for the Paralympics, Wilson got to know a colleague who would also eventually work at Tech: Karen DePauw, now the dean of the Graduate School.
DePauw was one of the first members of the Committee on Sports for the Disabled in 1981, which helped work toward integration of the Paralympics into the Olympic games.
“We were trying to make sure athletes with disabilities were treated fairly and equitably by the Olympic committee,” DePauw said. “We needed to get people seen as athletes as opposed to disabled folks.”
When Wilson worked for those committees, she said she primarily assisted athletes with logistical challenges and meeting their needs once they arrived at the site of the games.
“It was my ambition to make sure that athletes’ needs were met,” Wilson said. She said she knew, from their perspective, how difficult it could be to travel internationally.
That’s part of why carrying the torch was so special to her.
“I had spent a lot of my life being an athlete and helping other athletes, and it was so rewarding to put an exclamation point on it to be chosen to participate [in bearing the torch],” she said.
DePauw’s research work while on the faculty of Washington State University was about disabled athletes and led toward her work more as an advocate than as a coordinator, she said. She also co-authored a book called “Disability Sport” about disabled athletes.
The two women are working toward the same goal — for Paralympics athletes to be recognized as equal to other athletes.
“Something that I wanted was to see them get respect. I was so excited when the president of the IOC worked to get the Paralympics and Olympics connected,” DePauw said.
Wilson and Depauw have seen huge growth in the Paralympics since they first became involved with the games in the 80s.
This year, there were 4,200 athletes, compared to about 1,200 athletes who competed in the 1988 Paralympic games in Seoul, South Korea, the last games Wilson competed in. Also, she said, this was the first year each participating country had a woman on its delegation.
Wilson said she thinks the Paralympics help represent the resilience of people to overcome challenges.
“We’re all challenged every day,” she said. “When you see challenged individuals who have overcome their challenges, it’s inspiring. It helps people feel optimistic and encouraged to just go for it.”
Wilson said her experiences as a competitor, an athlete’s aide and this year running the torch in London have helped her connect with students. She took over alumni relations and career services advising for the College of Architecture at Tech in April 2006, wanting to find a more permanent home after moving to different Olympic locations during the 90s and early 2000s.
“It gives me the opportunity to encourage students to get over their bumps,” Wilson said.
“At Tech and at any other campus, there are students of diverse backgrounds,” DePauw said. “For people who have disabilities of have been through health traumas, it’s important that there’s someone there who has had similar experiences.”
Though Wilson doesn’t swim now, she still helps work with people around the world who are disabled and want to hear from someone else who has faced similar challenges.
“Living a normal, happy life is a good way to encourage people,” Wilson said. “It’s been helpful to me to know that I have something to give back. I know what has encouraged, and discouraged me over the years, and if I can help one other person, that’s good with me.”
Wilson said one of the things she hopes people who don’t know much about the Paralympic games, disabled athletes or disabled people in general will do is to just ask questions.
Furthermore, Wilson emphasized that Paralympics athletes are just as competitive and train just as hard as Olympic athletes. She said she hopes someday to have more blended Olympics games that include more disabled athletes.
“I don’t think there’s a question any more that athletes with disabilities are athletes,” DePauw said. “Any time someone has the opportunity to be in the Olympics who has a challenge is just another step toward normalcy,” she said, “My dream when I worked for the Paralympics was to put ourselves out of business, because one day we will all be integrated.”
DePauw said she believes there’s still work to be done before that dream can be realized. For example, while anyone in America can turn on the television at almost any time during the Olympics and see the games, that’s still not the case with the Paralympics.
DePauw also wants to see more youth involvement with Paralympic sports, and believes it’s important for accomplished Paralympians like Wilson to set good examples.
Carrying the Paralympic torch in London was an honor to Wilson’s dream and her past work. “I was so tickled for her when I heard,” DePauw said, that Wilson would be bearing this year’s Paralympic torch. “That was the recognition from her peers and colleagues she deserved.”
The Roanoke Times | 381-1662
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