One for the Gold

The 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympics

Twenty one-time Paralympic gold medal winner Ragnhild Myklebust clutched her 22nd gold last Friday afternoon and raised her arms high in the air, her smile as wide as the blue sky over the Heber Valley.

The 58-year-old polio survivor had just completed the 10-kilometer sit-ski race at Soldier Hollow in 33 minutes, 43.8 seconds, beating her second place competitor by over a minute after an ability adjustment. Using a customized, lightweight chair mounted to two cross-country skis, the powerful Norwegian sliced and diced Soldier Hollow's imposing hills and icy turns on a frigid morning that featured new snow and a firm, fast track.

For me, that Paralympic moment was likely the greatest in the six-week stretch that surrounded Salt Lake City's hosting of the Olympics. You simply can't beat, or recreate, that expression of joy, that moment of triumph set against the beauty of Soldier Hollow, and the intimate interaction Myklebust seemed to hold with the spectators.

Myklebust's race just about wrapped up the Paralympics, which formally ended last Saturday night in Salt Lake City with a swinging Patti LaBelle concert, fireworks launched from atop the tall buildings of downtown, and a blizzard of confetti that seemed so utterly appropriate on such a winter's night.

After accepting the gold in front of hundreds of northern Utah school children and a respectable crowd of fans, Myklebust announced she was retiring from the sit-skiing but would work to recruit more young athletes to the sport. Friday's women's event had just 11 entries. The men, who skied a 15-kilometer course, had a much deeper field.

Myklebust was followed by Ukrainians Svitlana Tryfonova and Olena Yurkovska, who finished in 34:41.5 and 35:25.6, respectively. Russian Sergey Shilov won the men's race in 42:03.2, while teammate Michail Terentiev came in second at 42:59.9 and Austrian Oliver Anthofer finished third in 43:51.8.

The Paralympics too often, say people close to the Games - like my good friend Laura, who spent a week and a half grooming the course up at Soldier Hollow - are misunderstood. Sometimes they are confused with the Special Olympics; usually, casual observers fail to see that many of the Paralympic athletes would compete in the Olympics themselves had they not lost a limb, broken their back, or suffered a debilitating childhood disease.

The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in the summer of 1960, and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. Since then, the Games have grown in size and complexity. The 1996 Atlanta Paralympics were the largest ever, with over 3,500 athletes and support staff from 104 countries. Medals were offered in 17 events.

At their best, the Paralympics are credited with supplying intense and riveting athletic competition and bringing international attention to disabled athletic competition while promoting equality, accessibility, awareness and inclusion for individuals with disabilities. At their worst, they offer the same sorts of scandal that regularly rock the Olympics. During the second week of the Games, for example, German cross country Paralympian Thomas Oelsner was stripped of two gold medals after a urine test detected traces of a banned anabolic steroid.

But despite that event and others, when the Olympic Flame was extinguished last Saturday it marked the end of the most spectacular chapter in the life of Salt Lake City and Utah. The world came here and saw the city and its mountains and church and deep red western sunsets, and we Utahns answered by welcoming the visitors, dropping our inhibitions and, well, acting normal. We did it - we succeeded - and Utah is now an Olympic standard other cities will look to match.

Like their Olympic counterpart, the Winter Paralympics have always been smaller and clubbier than the Summer Games: 400 Paralympians from 36 countries competed in the Salt Lake Games. That was obvious Saturday night in Salt Lake City during the Paralympics Closing Ceremony, when International Paralympic Committee President Phil Craven called the games the 'best ever.'

'Your spirit and dedication, your tireless efforts and harmonious cooperation made these Paralympic Winter Games the best ever,' he said to a sold out crowd gathered at what had been the Olympics Medals Plaza. 'The Games will end tonight, but the spirit will travel on.'

'Paralympians, we saw in you the strength of mind, body and spirit that it takes to be a champion, said Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Organizing Committee president. 'Paralympians, volunteers, Salt Lake City, you are the greatest!'

'Does anybody have gloves?' asked Patti LaBelle, shivering a few songs into her set at the Closing Ceremony. 'I need gloves and I need a scarf.' LaBelle duked out a handful of soulful tunes, including 'Greatest' and 'Over the Rainbow,' but it was Lacey Heward, a winner of two bronze medals in downhill events, who stole the show. Wearing thin-rimmed glasses and a radiant smile, the young Boise skier - who raised money door-to-door so she could afford her first ski lesson at Sun Valley - belted out a duo with LaBelle of her 1974 hit Lady Marmalade that brought the house down.

Utah scored big for bringing the Paralympics to mainstream society, said Craven during the ceremony. Romney earlier reported that nearly 88 percent of the 240,000 Paralympic tickets made available were sold - much more than expected. Events like the Saturday cross-country finale at Soldier Hollow were sold out. That's the sort of popularity and exposure that Paralympic supporters were hoping for.

You're the greatest, shouted LaBelle between songs. Don't let nobody tell you nothing else.

I suppose I should lean back, square my shoulders, and say something now, something profound, something that even I won't understand, about the infallible spirit of human nature or the determination and drive that produce champions or about why some of must soar while others simply walk, but all of it would be trite and insignificant. In the end, this is all I can really say: that for 27 days - 17 during the Olympics and another 10 during the Olympics, plus the four days it took for the Olympic Torch to wind through this state of sandstone and mountain - athleticism itself served as the great equalizer, and in those moments memories were made, memories that the whole world now shares. And I am not alone: when the Flame was suddenly extinguished that Saturday night, a visible sigh went up from the plaza. Extinguishing the Flame - that had a certain sort of finality that no one really seemed to anticipate. But those emotions were soon replaced with a shower of Paralympic confetti - the symbol of spirit - that even today, a week later, can still be seen blowing in the breeze downtown. And even today, a week later, cars and vans and trucks still park in the no-parking lane in front of Rice-Eccles Stadium to snap a picture of the dormant Olympic cauldron.

Instead of thinking great thoughts, I keep going back to this one: Back at Soldier Hollow, Myklebust used two shortened ski poles to cruise, grunting and smiling, up the toughest of the venue's hills. The main grandstand was filled with cheering fans who rose to their feet when the skiers came through on their three-lap course. But most of the race was run far from the stands, along a route where only coaches, course crews and the occasional fan were present. Myklebust won her race out there, and she seemed to ski the entire course with a smile on her face.

A Note to Readers:

Let this picture suffice: 16 inches of new snow in the Wasatch Sunday morning.

Check out this week's photo gallery.

Jeff's Bio

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