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Peter V. Tonsoline: Paralympic athletes exhibit great character

How many people woke up this morning thinking they had a problem? Sometimes things happen that seem so devastating, insurmountable and beyond solving. I suppose we all experience this staggering burden at some point in our life. What we do next might be the definitive act that will define our character and chart the future.

On March 15, I had the pleasure of watching 15 individuals who had not accepted their fate achieve a milestone. The U.S. Paralympic sled team captured its second consecutive gold medal in Sochi with a 1-0 win over the host Russian squad. As the players received their medals after the game, the commentator described each man’s special needs. Some were former military members who lost limbs from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Others were born with spina bifida or degenerative bone conditions. These were the problems they woke up to. One of the commentator’s remarks stayed with me the rest of the day. He said they had hit the lowest point in their lives, but each one had decided not to accept the outcome.

Two Buffalo natives, Adam Page and Paul Schaus, were on that team, proudly displaying a gold medal draped around their neck as they looked toward a raised American flag. Rightly so, they have received much local media attention. I never had the privilege of meeting Paul, a wounded warrior, but I met Adam on a cold January afternoon, of course at a hockey rink. He was invited by a fellow coach to speak to our players from the combined Lancaster/Iroquois girls varsity ice hockey team at our practice. Much to my surprise, Adam came to skate first. Outfitted in his sled with the red, white and blue emblems from the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, Adam skated with the girls through every drill. They were mesmerized by his ability, skill and amazing work ethic, but to me it was so much more.

I have been involved with athletics all my life, yet this moment will last with me forever. Here was a young man born with spina bifida and doomed to a paralyzing condition, but somehow he had found the courage to do something remarkable. No, it was not simply winning a gold medal, but having the strength and determination to sit on that sled the very first time. I stood along the boards wracked with emotion. Here was an Olympian on our practice ice, but then again, such a wonderful person bearing the testimony of a condition beyond his control. Later, I was thrilled to learn that Adam had made the Sochi team.

On game day, as my fellow coach and I sat talking over coffee, he received a text message. Laughing, he simply said, “Adam, is texting me from Russia.” For the next 20 minutes, they exchanged texts. The team had just finished watching, of course, “Miracle,” and Adam asked what he should do to get ready for the gold medal game that was three hours away. Two high school coaches did the best they could to tell an Olympian how to win a gold medal!

For Adam, Paul, the rest of the sled team and all of the Paralympic athletes, your talent and determination are beyond words. It was the best three hours I spent watching that hockey game. Sports and competition only reveal the true depth of a person’s inner spirit. My deepest congratulations go out to all of the athletes and their families for proving a problem is only what you make it to be.