I have been looking forward to the 6th Annual Hockey Disabled Festival ever since I learned of its existence (admittedly, not terribly long ago!) I wrote about how much I enjoyed watching the U.S. Paralympic Games this year, and I have been telling everyone about the Festival in Laurel this weekend. The Paralympics, like the hockey games this weekend, are something that I feel not enough people are exposed to and (generally speaking) it falls under the radar of most of us as we go about our everyday life. This is something that frustrates me because I am so enthusiastic about sports, and feel so strongly about supporting disabled athletes. Professional athletes generally make a lot of money and they are always referred to as "role models" but I don't buy into that so much. I honestly don't know of any professional athlete who is more of a role model than someone like Joe Bowser, who lost his leg from an injury in Iraq, and will play for the USA Standing Amputee Team this weekend in Laurel. As he says in the interview in USA Hockey Magazine,
...you have to play with the cards they deal you. You have to adapt and overcome any kind of injury or disability you have and make the best of it.
and watching some of the players this weekend, you will see people who have not only learned to adapt and overcome, but persevere. Unfortunately, it really is something you have to see with your own eyes to understand how inspiring it is to watch these athletes at work. I have told so many people about the Festival and have had some people ask a few questions about it, but most people have no knowledge whatsoever of the Paralympics, or disabled sports... they have no idea what to expect. So, oftentimes when I tell someone about the Festival and invite them to go with me, they just don't seem to think it's going to be any fun. Many times, the response I receive is something to the effect of, "Aww, that's so nice that you're doing that!" When I hear that, I know that they don't get it. They just don't understand.
Many of the folks I've invited to the Festival seem to think it's something to do as a way to volunteer time and support, more so than a fun and exciting way to spend their weekend. This is the hardest thing to get through to people who haven't been exposed to this kind of sporting event before. While I'm sure that any athlete appreciates support and loves to hear a crowd cheering, providing applause is not the reason to go to Laurel this weekend; go to Laurel and catch a game this weekend because it is FUN! When I see the folks who play sled hockey, or watch the Paralympians compete, I feel strength. I feel hope. Life is full of challenges for everyone, and it's easy to let things build up and get you down. But when I see someone like Joe Bowser play... I know that everything is going to be alright. It helps me to meet my own challenges, and it puts things into perspective. I often get stuck in a rut. I go to work, I go home, I'm exhausted, I go to my second job on the weekends just to make ends meet... It's easy to feel like life is repetitive and exhausting, and we don't take the time to consider our sense of purpose. It's easy to get depressed. But like Joe Bowser says, you have to adapt and overcome. And when I consider how he has overcome obstacles that are unimaginable to me, and is such a role model for serving his country, hanging on to the sport that he loves, and working to improve the lives of others... it's a much-needed reminder that we all need to turn a bad situation into an opportunity and make it work. Watching people who have overcome obstacles greater than my own, and seeing them compete as more of an athlete than I will ever be... that is a truly moving, empowering experience.
If you are unable to make it to the Festival this weekend in Laurel, then please try and make it to your television set on Saturday afternoon. NBC will broadcast a 90-minute highlights show from the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. If you can't make it to Laurel to meet the members of the gold medal winning sled hockey team, please take the time to watch them on television and see for yourself why this is such an uplifting, exciting thing to watch. It's more fun than you might think, but you'll never know until you try.
Tonight, I was able to convince a friend to go to Laurel for the first night of the Festival. The Stanley Cup was there, and he is a Capitals season ticket holder, so it wasn't so hard to convince him to make the trip. Although, I could see his shoulders slump a little bit when I told him that after getting our pictures taken with the Cup, I wanted to watch a couple games. He is a good friend and he indulged me as we went into one of the hockey rinks inside Gardens IceHouse. We showed up in the middle of a special hockey game and looked through the program to get a better idea of who we were watching and where they were from. After a while, he was getting into it, too. We had a great time! We were going to leave around 9:15 and I asked if he wanted to leave but he said, "It's over at 9:40? Why don't we just stay and watch the end of the game?" And I'm glad he did because the game got so much more exciting as it went on! There were kids of all ages on the ice and we saw some impressive saves by the goalie, some breakaway shots, and I'm pretty sure one player had a hat trick. (We did not throw our hats on the ice, that may not have gone over so well.) On the ride home, he was grateful for having learned about the Festival and was suddenly asking questions about the events for the remainder of the weekend. He is now very excited to attend the USA Warrior events on Saturday and during the ride home he was making a mental list of military friends he wants to invite. It was fun to see his reaction, which was much like my own, in questioning, "Why don't more people know about this? This is awesome! We should tell people!" Indeed we should. We will encourage everyone to come out and catch a game or an event or two in Laurel. And if they listen, they will thank us. Just as he thanked me, and I thanked Mark Miller. And when we're done, we will all thank the athletes and the family members who support them. For showing us the strength and fortitude of the human spirit.