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Sports inclusion: stories of 5 athletes who overcame their disability through sport

Anyone who has ever participated in a marathon or a half marathon will have certainly seen groups of friends running and pushing people in wheelchairs. This act of inclusion has gained the attention of Italian news in the last days of 2018, when the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, awarded the Sicilian runner Vito Massimo Catania the title of "Knight of the Italian Republic" with the following reason, which you can find on the website of the Quirinale:

Vito Massimo Catania, 39 - Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for his generous commitment to raising awareness on the theme of architectural and social barriers (...) provides his legs and lungs to those who do not have the opportunity to run, allowing the disabled to live the experience of running. (…).

Vito Massimo, in fact, a name that recalls that of Ridley Scott’s The Gladiator, is not "only" a talented and successful athlete. In the last two years, the Sicilian runner has set aside his individual competition to put legs, mind and heart to the service of inclusion of people with disabilities, recently celebrating the 500th kilometre run with his friend Giusi La Loggia, suffering from ataxia, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that affects muscle coordination.
Make living the experience of the marathon to those who can not
However, many people have chosen the path of sports inclusion like Vito Massimo, without necessarily being champions. Every year, for example, during the Rimini Marathon, the national gathering of "pushers" is held, whereby, a gathering for all those who devoted their time and training to the inclusion of those who can’t run.

Sport is inclusion: examples of 5 athletes from around the world

Sport can be a vehicle for inclusion, as well as an opportunity for volunteering, as demonstrated by many realities. All over the world, in fact, there are non-profit organisations that, thanks to the support of athletes with disabilities, enhance those with disabilities in many disciplines.

The mission of these associations dedicated to inclusion in sport is never only to offer these people the opportunity to engage in a sporting activity, but also and above all to combat the negative stereotypes related to their skills and their motor intelligence.

Climbing is teamwork and inclusiveness
Speaking of sports inclusion, it is interesting to hear what the British climber Paul Pritchard, who was struck by hemiparesis following a serious climbing accident, said during an interview: "People with disabilities are not incapable at all. Society puts barriers in the way of people with disabilities because we are all used to living fast, but since I've been forced to move slowly, I've noticed a myriad of things that I didn't see before. I've become good at distinguishing people's character, I think, and I think I've learned that with the right level of help everyone can do amazing things.
Anche le pareti più ripide non sono un'ostacolo alla determinazione
Climbing is a sport that has been very popular among people with disabilities for a long time, with excellent results in terms of performance and sports inclusion. In 1989, Mark Wellman became the first paraplegic to climb the legendary wall of El Capitan, California, and today the name of Craig de Martino stands out, who, following a terrible accident in 2002, suffered the amputation of a leg.

Determined not to give up his great passion, in June 2012, after a long period of rehabilitation and training, he managed to climb El Capitan once more, following the Zodiac route and in team with Pete Davis and Jarem Frye, who also suffered from disabilities. Since the time of his terrible accident, Craig has not only pursued his personal goals, but he has also given rise to several initiatives, aimed at including athletes in his own conditions in races and courses.

Climbing refines all the other senses
In Italy, many associations involve disabled climbers in projects of sports inclusion, including blind climbers. In Turin, for example, the ConTatto Verticale initiative, born from an idea of the guides Pietro dal Prà and Carla Galletti, has been held since 2016 and includes an entire day dedicated to the inclusion of the climbing community with blind people, learning how to guide them and "make them see" holds and supports.

Contrary to what one might think, in fact, climbing is a sport that better than others is able to enhance the sensory capabilities more developed in people with impaired vision. It is therefore a perfect vehicle for sports inclusion.

Touch, body awareness, balance, motor memory: all this is fundamental in a sport that requires slow movements and developed proprioceptive abilities.

Another discipline in which blind people can successfully perform is skiing. If in the United States for example, ABSF (the American Blind Skiing Foundation) is the reference association for sports inclusion.

The teaching methods are similar to regular ski: at the beginning, every skier knows the materials he will have to use and begins to perceive his body on skis and snow. Sport inclusion starts from the first descents, where the athlete is at first supported by two guides, experiences his first descents and, only when he has reached a sufficient degree of autonomy, is entrusted to a single person. The communication between the two takes place via radio, and via radio the guide transmits information on the difficulty of the route and the presence of any obstacles.

The beginning is the same for everyone
There is nothing to prevent blind people, through these organisations dedicated to sports inclusion, to achieve good results. For example, the visually impaired athlete Millie Knight, part of the British Paralympic national team, won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, reaching a speed of 115 km/h while being able to see within a radius of just two metres in front of her.
Seight is not an obstacle if you have a guiding voice along the way
Even for the guides, participating in a race is a real challenge. That's what Rob Umstead, husband of American Paralympic skier Danelle Umstead, says about it: "My job is to be her eyes. It's basically about thinking out loud and telling her everything that's going on. If I can do it well, and offer a good description, she can be aggressive and anticipate what happens. Otherwise, she has to imagine things.
Finally, returning to the race, let's close this editorial by thinking of the example of sports inclusion that the father of Bailey Matthews gave us, an English child who, suffering from cerebral palsy, at the age of eight decided to challenge his illness by enrolling in the Castle Howard Triathlon in North Yorkshire.

The race was a miniature triathlon involving 100 metres of swimming, 4 km of cycling, and 1.3 km of running: a relatively simple performance for a small, normalised athlete, but a huge challenge for little Bailey.

This video captures the last, very difficult steps before the finish line, where, encouraged by the cheering of the crowd, Bailey abandons his support and falls repeatedly, before crossing the finish line and thus concluding his race.

In this moving example, we understand that inclusion in sport is not the same as blind support. Inclusion means providing the tools for a disabled person to make his or her effort closer to that of a normal athlete.

In fact, the father encourages him and is close to him, but without ever intervening, without raising him, without offering him physical support but letting him, with the forces at his disposal, to realise his great dream independently.

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