‘Blame it on Rio’: SRU students attend 2016 Paralympic Games

adapted physical therapy students at the paralympic games

Students in Slippery Rock University’s adapted physical activity program took time from watching the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to teach a dance workshop for children with disabilities at a local elementary school.

rio de janerio paralympics logo

Sept. 26, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Since its debut in 1960, the Paralympic Games have been focused on change. Changing attitudes about the athletes that compete in the games and their abilities; and changing the lives of not only those that compete, but those that organize and watch the Games.

The 2016 edition of the games, staged Sept. 7-18 in Rio de Janiero, were no different. In fact, this year's Games counted a group of 19 Slippery Rock University students among those changed.

As the world's top para-athletes - more than 4,300 from 160 countries - competed for gold, "Team Rock" was there to cheer them on in person. The contingent of adapted physical activity students paid their own way to Brazil and was awestruck by what they saw.

"Watching the events in person was an amazing experience," said Kaitlynne Temple, a recreational therapy major from Herndon, Virginia. "In class, we have learned about the history of the Paralympics and about the different events. But witnessing the Paralympics as they happen right in front of you is an experience that no book or PowerPoint could have given us."

sru students at the paralympic games

The SRU contingent at Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue.

The participating students are enrolled in either SRU's adapted physical activity master's program or undergraduate minor. Wendy Fagan, instructor of physical and health education, and Dallas Jackson, assistant professor of physical and health education, accompanied the group. Pamela Arnold, assistant professor of physical and health education, organized the venture.

The multi-sport Games shine a spotlight on athletes with disabilities, including limb loss, paraplegia, muscular dystrophy and autism. According to the International Paralympic Committee, 2 million tickets were sold to this year's event; making Rio the second most attended adapted games in history.

Students witnessed track and field, swimming, power lifting, judo, goalball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair volleyball and wheelchair rugby. They unfurled an American flag at a swimming event, learned how the IPC classifies disabilities for competition and experienced Brazilian culture.

"We were lucky enough to watch both the men's and women's wheelchair basketball teams who went on to win gold as well as the men's goalball team who won the silver medal at the games," said Jason West, an exercise science major from Gibsonia. "There really is no comparison to being in the enormous stadiums and arenas with tons of fans cheering on the athletes. The atmosphere in each event was amazing."

Courtney McKaerin, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Paintsville, Kentucky, said watching the athletes made her appreciate their dedication.

"Seeing the events made me question why the Paralympics are not more widely broadcast," she said. "Personally, I think it's shameful that the U.S. doesn't show these athletes more. They are real Olympians, they've overcome their disabilities and truly shine."

Natalie Manga, an adapted physical activity graduate student, from New York City, said she has always dreamed about seeing and experiencing the Paralympics. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

"Seeing the athletes compete in person was inspiring, motivating and emotional," she said. "Learning about it in class is one thing, but seeing them in action, in person, is something I will never forget."

Manga said what "hit (her) the most" was watching the swimming competitions.

"I learned not to put any kind of limitations on anyone," she said. "Everyone is capable of achieving any goal they set their mind to. I also learned that this profession (adapted physical therapy) is one awesome field to be in."

For Julia Freed, a pre-physical therapy public health major from Aspers, watching the para-athletes push themselves to their limits provided incredible moments to bear witness to.

"The events were amazing to see," she said. "I would have never thought that someone with no legs and only one good arm could swim better than I could. That was really eye opening for me. Watching all these people do such amazing things while I'm just an average, lazy American really showed me how good I have it, and how much I take things for granted."

Freed noted that through her interactions, she became well versed in some of the medical treatment for those with disabilities.

"I learned about an operation where someone who needs their leg amputated could have their foot put on backwards so that their heel of the foot becomes their knee and they can do more things," she said. "It was amazing to see the technologies, and the adaptations people use to be able to do all of these things."

Members of the group also noted that the trip provided an eye-opening cultural experience, particularly in terms of the noticeable poverty in Rio's "favelas" or slums. That, in addition to a high military and police presence and language barrier - Portuguese is Brazil's native tongue - made for a life lesson like none other.

"It was not what I expected at all," Freed said. "It was nice that most people knew how to speak English, and loved Americans, but it was difficult to communicate to those who didn't know any at all, like the people who worked wherever we would go to get food that day, or the venders on the street. Street vendors would try to take advantage of us by trying to charge us more money than the locals for the same items."

Julia Schuerle, an elementary and special education major from Washington, said she came away from the trip inspired by what she witnessed.

"While we were there, we got to see a new world record for power lifting - 575 pounds - and he won gold," she said. "The athletes may have disabilities, but they are able to accomplish incredible things. The respect they have for each other was another moving thing that I witnessed while I was there."

But it wasn't all fun and games as the SRU representatives took time out to teach a dance workshop for children with disabilities at a local elementary school. In addition, Fagan said the group did a bit of sightseeing, including a visit to the Christ the Redeemer statue that provided a view of the entire city.

The group also managed to do some recruiting for the University, speaking to the father of a blind equestrian athlete who said he would look into applying to SRU to take advantage of the adapted program.

"The trip was an opportunity of a lifetime," Fagan said. "They have a taste of what's out there now and really get it. They understand what the Paralympics is, the enormity of it, what is behind it globally and I think it will motivate them to say, 'I want to a part of that.'"

Hannah Shady, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Lock Haven, summarized the group's impression of the athletes.

"It's amazing to see all the obstacles they have overcome throughout their lives and what they are able to reap from that. They are absolutely amazing ... they are super humans."

Participating students included:

  • Emily Armentrout, a dance major from Merrill, Michigan;
  • Julia Freed, pre-physical therapy public health major from Aspers;
  • Ashley Fryberger, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Paoli;
  • Kelly Korpus, a recreational therapy major from Washington;
  • Ashley Kratz, a recreational therapy major from Hackettstown, New Jersey;
  • Kristen Laird, a recreational therapy major from Linusville;
  • Jake Loughner, a health and physical education major from Wexford;
  • Jenna Malsbury, a public health major from West Palm Beach, Florida;
  • Natalie Manga, an adapted physical activity graduate student from New York City;
  • Maggie McClintock, a recreational therapy from Johnstown;
  • Courtney McKearin, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Paintsville, Kentucky;
  • Alyssa Schmolly, a recreational therapy major from Darlington;
  • Julia Schuerle, an elementary and special education major from Washington;
  • Hannah Shady, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Lock Haven;
  • Jillian Stringfellow, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Fairhope, Alabama;
  • Kaitlynne Temple, a recreational therapy major from Herndon, Virginia;
  • Jason West, an exercise science major from Gibsonia;
  • Sarah Wiles, an adapted physical activity graduate student from Glenville; and
  • Calahan Young, a recreational therapy major from Irwin.


MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 | gordon.ovenshine@sru.edu