USA’s Matt Scott celebrates with fans after receiving a gold medal in men’s wheelchair basketball at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on September 17, 2016.

USA’s Matt Scott celebrates with fans after receiving a gold medal in men’s wheelchair basketball at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on September 17, 2016. Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images.

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This year, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, scheduled for July, joined a long list of canceled events due to the global novel coronavirus pandemic. The International Olympic Committee rescheduled the games for summer of 2021 and ordered that the Olympic torch remain lit in Tokyo as a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the world. Now, Paralympic athletes poised at the brink of international competition have readjusted their training regimen and mental preparation to qualify in another year. Here are some of their stories.

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Ellen Geddes:
Keeping That Competitive Edge

Wheelchair fencer Ellen Geddes got her start in the sport when she was approached by the captain of the Shepherd Swords while still rehabbing at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. “He asked if I thought it would be fun to stab people, and I said yes,” she says.

Since that introduction, Geddes, a T10 SCI, has quickly moved up the ranks in international competition. She currently ranks first in the U.S. for both foil and epee in her division, and has competed at many World Cup events. She was moving toward her first Paralympic performance in Tokyo this year when the pandemic shut down the competitions required to qualify for the games. To reach her goal in 2021, “we have to qualify again,” she says. “They are going to add two competitions to our previous competitions.”

Ellen Geddes hopes to qualify for the Paralympics.

Ellen Geddes hopes to qualify for the Paralympics.

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To qualify for the Paralympics, fencing athletes have to compete in three zones — the Americas, Europe and Asia — within a certain period. Minimally, that is six World Cup events, and points are compiled to create a world ranking list. Since the 2020 schedule was never finished, athletes still have to vie for the top spots. Geddes has her sights set on a World Cup and regional championship already scheduled for February and March of next year to earn her points. Naturally competitive and athletic, she is fine adding more to her fencing schedule.

All these events depend on the global pandemic situation. Travel is required, and there are ongoing restrictions in place for athletes to move about freely. COVID-19 is still circulating, and the risk of infection in any large grouping creates a huge challenge for the Paralympic organizers. Also, training regimens have changed, and opportunities for high-level coaching are limited in the United States due to the virus.

Normally, Geddes would fence with the Shepherd Swords and her home team, the Augusta Fencers Club. Plus, she would participate in national team practice at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado, and meeting the team’s coach for more practice in Philadelphia. None of these opportunities are available, but luckily, she’s been able to continue training. She lives with a fencer, and they spar five to six days a week so she can keep her competitive edge. She also works on strength and conditioning for her shoulders and the small muscles of her back in an effort to prevent injury.

Geddes remains optimistic that the games will continue on the 2021 schedule. “You have to keep moving forward,” she says. “You have to trust that things are going to get better and that progress is going to be made.”

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Steve Serio:
Missing the Court

Gold medalist Steve Serio began playing wheelchair basketball at the age of 14, when he discovered a team about 10 minutes from where he grew up. “My only regret is that I didn’t seek out adaptive athletics earlier in my life because it’s literally given me everything that I have,” says Serio, a T3-4 paraplegic since he was 11 months old.

By the end of his sophomore year, Serio made an under-19 team that gave him a first taste of traveling out of the country for competition. He was recruited to play on an athletic scholarship at the University of Illinois and after graduating, he signed a five-year professional contract for the German team RSV Lahn-Dill. He played for Team USA in the last three Paralympic Games and led the men’s team to winning the gold in 2016, the first time they’d done so since 1988. For that achievement, he won an ESPY for Best Male Athlete with a Disability in 2017.

Steve Serio in action in the men's final between Great Britain and the United States during the Wheelchair Basketball World Championships at the Edel-optics.de Arena on August 26, 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.

Steve Serio in action in the men’s final between Great Britain and the United States during the Wheelchair Basketball World Championships at the Edel-optics.de Arena on August 26, 2018 in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Moto Yoshimura/Getty Images.

He was competing in Wichita, Kansas, at the National Championship when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. By the first day of the event, cancellations were already rippling across the world in reaction to the virus’s spread and Serio, an athletic representative on the board of directors of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, had a hard decision to make. “There was not a lot of information and a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “We canceled the junior’s tournament and decided to accelerate the timeline for the adults, finishing the next day.”

That was the last time he was on a court.

“It’s been an interesting transition for me. Not to be on the court, a place where I feel the most comfortable, has been a challenge,” he says. “I’ve grown in other aspects, though, training-wise.”

Serio dusted off his handcycle over the summer and implemented cross-training to get exercise. Also, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the NWBA provided their athletes with some home equipment like weights and kettlebells for at-home workouts.

Serio lives in Brooklyn, New York, and recalls there were times during the pandemic when people were afraid to walk outside. But dealing with a disability may have helped him cope with the changes brought by COVID-19. “Living with a disability, you are pretty much programmed to live in a world that wasn’t built for you,” he says. “There are no excuses, no one is going to feel sorry for you. So, in a strange way, I was a little prepared.”

Though his competitive schedule could potentially resume this year, witnessing the pandemic in New York makes Serio tentative about starting too soon. “My parents live on Long Island. My grandfather is living with them right now,” he says. “The last thing I would want is to bring home COVID-19. I’ll continue to train individually and stay Tokyo-ready.”

Serio does think that plans developed for the Tokyo Games will be appropriate and reasonable. “I know people are working behind the scenes to create a safe and effective games. The world needs a little unity, and I think the Olympic and Paralympic message highlights that.”

Brandon Lyons:
Spinning His Wheels

A 2014 accident left Brandon Lyons, T5-6, looking for way to stay active. His friends and family hosted a fundraiser while he was in rehab and used the funds to buy him a handcycle. He looked at the equipment as a fun way to recover, not knowing how far it would push him athletically.

When Lyons moved to San Diego in 2016 for a stem cell clinical trial, he became passionate about cycling. He started training full time, and the U.S. Paralympic and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado extended him an offer to live and train at the facility. He was the first handcyclist to be accepted into the residency program. His move-in day was especially sweet, as May 24, 2017 was exactly three years from his injury date.

Tokyo’s 2020 Games were Lyons’ first opportunity to qualify for the Paralympics. Now, because of the pandemic, the sport had to change its approach to qualifying. The time trial events that grade and rank athletes take place at the end of June. Since COVID-19 closed competition in March, there were no real opportunities to earn points. “We were just getting ready,” says Lyons. “Our selection event to be named to the world championship team was going to take place in April in Indiana, so we were about a month out. That’s what made it difficult. I could feel my body starting to peak at the right time. I was ready to perform. It was tough.”

Uncertainty is now his biggest challenge, especially mentally. “I look at it like there’s a strong possibility that the games might not happen,” he says. “I’ve already put that into my mindset.”

The 2020 Tokyo Games would have been Brandon Lyon’s first chance to qualify for the Paralympics.

The 2020 Tokyo Games would have been Brandon Lyon’s first chance to qualify for the Paralympics.

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He didn’t want to change his training regimen this close to the games, but it was obvious that the training center wasn’t the best place to stay during the pandemic. There were just 13 athletes in residence when he left, and dining options were limited. His work schedule made it hard to meet the food schedule.

He decided to move to take back control of his training and lifestyle, heading to Florida to get closer to family. “I turned a whole room into a training facility. I can ride my bike indoors on a trainer and I have a Tonal Gym, a cable-type machine for training at home,” he says. “It works really well for someone with a disability. I can touch the screen to adjust the weight.”

Lyons also has access to trails outside around his new home and is thankful for the space. “There’s a 12.5 mile stretch out and back, almost the exact same distance as the time trial,” he says. “They are building neighborhoods around me so there’s not a lot of traffic.”

He was invited by a neighbor to take part in group rides organized by a local bike shop. The cyclists in the area were curious about his equipment and the level of athleticism of a man who can outrace their legs with his arms.

His goal is still Tokyo in 2021, even if there’s a possibility that the games won’t happen. “There is more than just what the United States can control. It’s a global event,” he says. “Countries can’t fly to certain other countries right now. I think it’s about a 50/50 chance.”

Murder Ballers Ready to Roll Over the Competition

Joe Jackson is shown on the court in happier, pre-pandemic times.

Joe Jackson is shown on the court in happier, pre-pandemic times.

Just like with wheelchair basketball, the USA Wheelchair Rugby team is finding it challenging to bring players together to practice and ready themselves for the Paralympics. The 16 -player roster would normally have been culled down to 12 in preparation for the games, but the athletes never reached that point.

Josh Wheeler fell in love with rugby as a way to have the same contact and hits he enjoyed from football before his SCI at both the cervical and thoracic levels.  He was looking forward to his second Paralympic experience, having participated in the Rio games in 2016. The USA team was in the United Kingdom for a tournament when everything stopped for the pandemic.

Wheeler had mixed emotions about the season’s abrupt ending. “It was hard at first to hear that play and practice was over, that everything you could do was on your own basically,” he says. “I actually hadn’t taken a break from when I started playing in 2008. I took that and it was nice.”

He watches videos and trains on his own, focusing on maintaining his physical readiness for the next possibility to get together as a group. He isn’t worried about the team’s performance from the break in training. “Our chemistry on the court will come back quickly. Seven or eight of us have had eight-plus years together. Some of the newer athletes might have a challenge, but there is still time. As an athlete, there is nothing I can do about it except train my hardest so that if the games do happen, I’ll be ready myself.”

Teammate Joe Jackson had a similar set of emotions when the season ended abruptly, “I felt like I was in a really good place endurance-wise, mentally,” says the C6 quad. “When COVID struck, I thought it would still be fine. I thought they wouldn’t postpone it. Then we got the news, and it was like a kick in the face.”

Jackson took the break as a chance to build strength and mental toughness. He studied the game, analyzing it rather than just participating in the physical work. He found keeping motivated by working out at home a real obstacle, so when a former football teammate opened an outdoor workout facility, he jumped at a chance to train in a gym again. He wakes up as early as 4 a.m. to beat the Arizona heat three times a week.

Jackson does feel that the team will eventually have to get back to business. “If there isn’t a camp by November or December, we have to look at risk over reward,” he says. “If we want that gold medal, we are going to have to train.”

Athletes aspiring to the USA team are feeling the pinch from pandemic restrictions. Talbot Kennedy, a C5-6 quad, was a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team in 2017. He was working hard toward a Paralympic goal, eventually making a traveling squad in 2018, “Every training camp is a tryout to make the 12-person travel team,” he says. “It keeps you on your game. You don’t get complacent.”

He didn’t fit into the lineup for the team in 2019, but planned to get an edge at the tryouts in December after the Tokyo Games. “Sometimes the Paralympic athletes take off after the games, opening spots for others to get on the team to develop and hopefully keep a spot,” he says. Once a player gets that spot, they have access to a sports and strength conditioning coach, a nutritionist, a counselor. “There is professional coaching. You have equipment, a medical staff and healthy meals provided for you.”

Now, with training stopped, it’s hard to get to a higher level of performance. Kennedy feels ready for recreational league play but that extra nudge to get him back on a Paralympic path is missing. He’s respectful of the pandemic, despite personal goals, “I’m ready to play, but I take COVID seriously,” he says. “I can wait a year out of my life to play rugby.”