10 Para-Athletes That Will Make You Redefine “Disabled”

People with newly-acquired physical disabilities are often informed that their lives are over and they won’t be able to do anything now. Para-athletes are living testimony to the fact that this claim is a load of hooey. For those struggling to adapt to disabilities, there’s limited information available on adaptive sports and the myriad of options that lie ahead of them, so many aren’t aware that some of the world’s best athletes are disabled.

That’s bad news for people who might decide to give up on their dreams if they think they aren’t realistic, when in fact, the world of adaptive sports is lively and diverse. Disabled children in particular can be vulnerable to the belief that their lives are “over” because they’re disabled, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s a list of para-athletes from around the world you might want to keep your eye on:

1. Tatyana McFadden

You might recognize this wheelchair athlete: she just won the Boston and London Marathons within the space of a single week. Adopted from Russia, McFadden has lower-limb paralysis as a result of spina bifida. She experienced considerable discrimination in U.S. schools as she fought for the right to compete, highlighting the common belief that disabled people can’t or don’t do sports, and is a growing star on the para-athletics stage.

2. Oksana Masters

A Paralympic rower who took home the first U.S. medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls in 2012, Masters is a double amputee. She started to pursue adaptive rowing when she was 13, and kept up her interest in the sport to become an international star. She’s an unstoppable force on the water despite the fact that she has a weight disadvantage, and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing her again in the 2016 Paralympic Games.

3. Tanni Grey-Thompson

Another wheelchair athlete, Tanni hails from Wales. Like McFadden, she was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair for mobility. While she’s now retired from racing, her career was extraordinarily successful (she probably needs a spare room for all her gold medals, including a number of Paralympic medals), and she continues to work as a television presenter as well as a member of parliament; clearly she didn’t want to get bored in retirement.

4. Rebecca Hart

This para-equestrian means business, and she’s competed in multiple Paralympics. As if being an accomplished horsewoman wasn’t enough, she also likes hiking, rock climbing and sailing. Familial spastic paraplegia may require some adaptations for her to participate in the sports she loves, but it doesn’t mean she’s barred from an active life.

5. Bethany Hamilton

From a young age, Hamilton knew she wanted to spend as much time as possible in the water, and that’s exactly what she did, becoming an accomplished professional surfer before the age of 13. When she lost her arm in a shark attack, a lot of people assumed her career was over — but a month later, she was paddling out again. She continues to win national championships and other events.

6. Jessica Long

Another double amputee, Long is an incredibly talented swimmer with a closet full of medals to prove it. She competed in the Athens Olympics at the tender age of 12, which didn’t stop her from medaling in multiple events. Did I mention that she currently holds records in 13 Paralympic events?

7. Melissa Stockwell

In 2004,  Melissa’s life changed forever when a roadside bomb took her leg. When she returned to the United States and Walter Reed Medical Center, this disabled veteran took up swimming as part of her physical therapy, remembering her passion for diving in high school. By 2008, she was competing for the United States in the Paralympic games.

8. Jessica Galli

This wheelchair athlete was paralyzed by a car accident at the age of seven. She’s taken home gold, silver and bronze in a range of events, and was named Paralympic of the Year in 2007 by the United States Olympic Committee. That same year, she was nominated for a “Best Female Athlete with a Disability” ESPY, a prestigious sports award. Track and field is her first love, but she’s also been involved in road racing, swimming and wheelchair basketball.

9. Sarah Reinertsen

Sarah lost one leg as a result of a congenital condition at age seven, and went on to become a Paralympic athlete and endurance athlete, competing in Ironman competitions notorious for their grueling conditions. She credits exposure to other amputee runners with her decision to start running at age 11, and started breaking records at age 13. Sarah’s case illustrates how important it is for disabled kids to be exposed to positive and empowering depictions of disability featuring active disabled people living full lives; she might never have found her innate athletic talents if she hadn’t heard that amputee running was possible.

10. Angela Madsen

A disabled veteran, Angela’s a competitor in shot put who also coaches other disabled athletes. Adjusting to her injuries was difficult, and her experience with depression makes her an especially sensitive and effective coach for people who need added support while learning about their new lives with disabilities. Madsen emphasizes, teaches, and pushes, all at the same time, drawing on skill and experience to be a formidable athletic coach.

Related articles:

The Dangers of Inspiration Porn: The Cast of Oscar Pistorius, a Great Athlete

Kids With Disabilities (Finally) Get to Join Sports Teams

7 Disabled People Making History Through Visibility

Photo credit: Julian Mason.

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Sabrina I.
Past Member 2 years ago

what a inspirational article, thank you :)

Wende Maunder
Wendé Maunder2 years ago

Bravo, the para-athletes!

Natasha Salgado
Natasha Salgado2 years ago

An inspiration to be sure!! Thanks

holly masih
holly masih2 years ago

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has something valuable to contribute.

Arild Warud
Arild Warud2 years ago


Ana Marija Rumbak
Ana R2 years ago

& Many others around the world!
"Disabled" vs. Different possibilities... It's not polite term. It's reality...:)

Michael H.
Mike H.2 years ago

Applause to all of these fine people!

Elizabeth Bollington

These people are what we should all try to be with a more positive outlook on life : )

Aletta Kraan
Aletta Kraan2 years ago

Thanks , I'll never complain about sore feet again , at least I can walk !

John De Avalon
John De Avalon2 years ago

What an inspiration!