There is such a thing as the Paralympic Torch. Like most things concerning the Paralympics, you probably didn’t know that.
That’s OK. The flame symbolizes something bigger, and that’s something you should know about.
Fame and corporate sponsorships and Wheaties box covers are hard to come by for Paralympians. Bob Costas will not summarize their exploits every night on network television. A Paralympian’s flame – his internal, burning passion for sport and country – isn’t on display throughout the months leading up to the Games, which will be renewed today in Sochi, Russia.
Yet the flame is there, literally and figuratively, which makes it a story worth telling.
For Taylor Lipsett, the flame was lit at a grapefruit store in Mesquite, Texas.
Lipsett was shopping at the store and so was the stepmother of Lonnie Hannah, an accomplished local sled hockey player who helped the U.S. capture gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympics.
“She saw I was in a wheelchair and ran up and started talking to me about sled hockey and the Paralympics,” Lipsett recalled. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.”
He didn’t care, either. After being diagnosed as a child with osteogenesis imperfecta, Lipsett was told that he would never be able to play sports. Better known as “brittle bone disease,” those afflicted with the incurable condition have bones that fracture easily. Lipsett broke his first bone when he was one and a half; he broke his second a week later.
To play a sport at the highest level possible, on a global stage, was not on the long-term horizon.
“I never imagined I’d have these opportunities,” he said. “It really changed my life. The past 10, 12 years have been an amazing journey.”
Lipsett started playing at age at 15. Now 27, he’s used the sport to appear in three Paralympic games: Turin, Italy in 2006, Vancouver, British Columbia in 2010, and now Sochi.
Twelve years ago, mentioning “sled hockey” in the U.S. would have elicited the same reaction as mentioning a Bitcoin or a Higgs boson.
Sleds, we know. Hockey, yes. Sleds and hockey?
When he began playing, Lipsett said there were a only handful of teams around the United States featuring a total of 50 to 75 players. “They were guys in their 20s,” he said, with few grizzled veterans to guide the path to international glory and not many up-and-comers pushing them to excel. In the world of grassroots sports, the sled hockey seeds had barely reached the soil.
At least they were good seeds. The U.S. was the defending gold medalist when Lipsett and his teammates arrived in Turin. They left as bronze medalists, beating Germany 4-3 in their final game. Canada defeated Norway for the gold medal.
“I was just in shock and awe at the whole experience,” Lipsett said. “Sixty, seventy thousand people cheering for you isn’t the same experience as your local sled hockey rink.”
As the roots took hold, the sport started getting younger. Lipsett felt like he knew what to expect when he got to Vancouver. With an average age of about 23, the U.S. squad captured gold in a 2-0 win over Japan.
In sports with the limited cache of sled hockey, gold medals don’t lead to SportsCenter highlights, let alone even professional contracts. They do, however, lead to greater participation. USA Hockey now claims approximately 1,500 sled hockey participants across the country. That’s an increase of more than 2,000 percent in the last 12 years.
In between Olympiads, ice hockey players go back to their day jobs as professional ice hockey players. Sled hockey players go back to day jobs that you and I can relate to. On weekends, they must introduce others to their sport, sometimes through hands-on clinics at community rinks. The local grapefruit store is still an option too, but recruiting disabled athletes to sled hockey by getting them on the ice at an early age is becoming more popular.
“Now, players start at 7, 8 years old,” Lipsett said.
Twelve years from now, those youngsters might be the backbone of an American powerhouse. At least that’s the dream.
For now, Lipsett is playing the role of the grizzled veteran. To hear him tell it, the eight-team field in Sochi is wide open, more so than the other hockey tournament just played in Sochi.
“It’s an honor just to wear red, white and blue,” Lipsett said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that. Very few get to wear their country’s colors and compete at this level.”
Close your eyes, hear those words, and you could be talking to any Olympic hockey player – any Olympian, for that matter.
In Sochi, the spotlight has moved on but the torch is still burning bright.