Mackenzie Soldan: From Grit to Gold

Mackenzie Soldan has a long list of accomplishments for 2016. Completing her MBA at the University of Alabama, winning a gold medal with the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball in Rio and visiting White House are only three items that top the list. I was fortunate to catch up with Mackenzie as she took some time to reflect on her sports journey.

What moment from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio will stick with you? The moment before we got our gold medal. When I was pushing out to the podium with all of my teammates. I realized then that I had achieved my dream, and all of my family and old coaches were there to see it. All the people who had contributed to getting me to that moment were there.

team-gold-pic-1

                 Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball with their gold medals in Rio.                                Photo Courtesy of Mackenzie Soldan

What makes the Paralympic Games a unique sporting event? The Paralympics are unique because it brings so many athletes from different cultures together that wouldn’t meet except through sports. It also demonstrates the progress of disabled sports and helps to continue the movement forward.

What was your grittiest moment of the Games? As a team, we had a moment in the semi-finals where we played the home team. In the locker room the coaches let us have it. The whole team was down because we hadn’t play to our expectations. At our next practice, we pushed through it. We realized that one moment or one game was not going to ruin this for us. We decided to forget it and go with what we knew. We did just that and ended up with a great final game.

Who was an athlete at the Paralympic Games that embodied grit for you? His name is

Ahmed Shafik Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Ahmed Shafik. He was born in Iraq and contracted polio as a baby. After the Iraqi team had a poor performance at the Games, he was jailed for a year and beaten badly. He decided to leave the country and arrived in the US as a refugee. He then joined the US Army as a translator and served a tour in Iraq for three years. When he came back he returned to powerlifting and was the only American powerlifter at the Games in Rio. I think that story perfectly displays having grit. He was in a tough situation, and against all odds, he made his way through it. The way that happens is by making one decision. I think you can usually trace back someone’s success to one moment where the person consciously decides to either make a change or do nothing. Ahmed made the decision to make a change in a harder situation than most of us will ever encounter.

 

What do you hope people gained from watching the Paralympic Games? I hope people realized that the Games are a high level of competitive sports and they became fans. I hope they watched and became inspired by athletes who were following their dreams. I also hope that the Games humanized people with disabilities. And finally, I hope that people learned not to fear disabilities, but to simply see them as a part of an athlete’s life. Disabilities don’t make a person greater or lesser.

What’s next for you? Everyone has been asking me that question. I’m not sure. It’s hard. For four years you have a plan. Right now, I am going to take a break and think about starting my career.

No matter her decision, Mackenzie’s future is bright because we know she will always choose grit. Thanks, Mackenzie for being awesome and representing Team USA!

If you want to learn more about Mackenzie you can check out her  NWBA Athlete of the Week interview.

My Favorite Four-Letter Word

In August we returned to Acadia National Park in Maine for a family vacation. We had been there five years earlier with Nolan and Caitlin. At that time Caitlin was just three years old and Nolan was five. During that trip, the kids hiked their first mountain and experienced the magic of Mother Nature. As a result, they too fell in love with the park.

This time Seth and I wanted to explore new and more challenging hikes with them. So we shared the trial maps, read the description of the hikes and let them decide on our daily adventures. They choose to start with some familiar, easier hikes where we shared memories from our first hikes in the park. Then, they wanted to try the more challenging Beehive Trail because of the cliff climbs and incredible vistas.

Caitlin bounded up the entire trail like a mountain goat. I tried to keep up, but instead of leaping like a billy goat I often found myself crawling on my hands and knees. The steel ladders stapled into the side of mountain left me shaking and crawling. To Caitlin’s credit, she waited at the top of each ladder climb reaching out her hand and asking, “Mom, do you want some help?” Each time, I eloquently responded through clenched teeth, “You can help by just standing still for one minute.”

Seth and Nolan were behind me because Nolan has a fear of heights, and I was to be his “guide.” However,  Nolan just kept yelling at me, “Mom, stop saying, ‘Oh my God’ in that shaky voice. It’s NOT helping.” So our trek up the Beehive wasn’t always pretty, but we did make it to the peak. And like seasoned hikers, we proudly celebrated our accomplishment with a few photos, apples and trail mix.

img_2982

Nolan and Caitlin posing proudly after completing the Beehive Trail.  Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Over dinner, we retold our versions of the climb which sounded as triumphant as climbing Mt. Everest. With this boost in confidence, the kids decided they wanted to try a two-peak hike. The next day we would climb to the top of Acadia, enjoy a snack, and then transverse to the top of St. Sauveur Mountain. It would be a four-mile up and down journey, but we felt ready for the trek.

However, it didn’t take long before our confidence bubble started to deflate. Only a mile in we realized that I had left the second water bottle in the car that was parked at the trailhead. Who needs water when hiking four miles up two peaks in oppressive August heat? Okay, maybe we weren’t totally prepared. But more importantly, we had faith in ourselves.

Within an hour we reached the top of Acadia. It was stunning to look out over the mountains and ocean. Between the cool breeze, healthy snacks, and a few sips of water from our one bottle, we were ready to traverse to our next peak. The terrain was rocky, and we often found ourselves scrambling up boulders. It was a tough 2.5 miles. As we approached the summit of St. Sauveur, our pace slowed even more and the kids started to ask, “How much further?” One behind the other, Caitlin and Nolan trudged along. Nolan started to describe how the sweat was dripping down their backs. Caitlin shared that her legs burned. But…they never complained. They never asked to stop or give up. They just kept going one foot in front of another. After a long hour of slow yet steady steps, we rounded the bend to the summit.

At that moment, Caitlin exclaimed, “Mom, I have GRIT!”

Yes! Caitlin used my favorite four-letter word to describe her experience, her triumph…herself. She recognized that there will be times when we want to give up on our journey, times when we are experiencing physical and/or emotional pain that will make us doubt our own abilities, but it is during these times that we need to stay focused on our goal and to dig deep. 

img_2981

All of us on the top of Acadia Mountain. Photo Credit: A Kind Hiker

Caitlin experienced the power of grit on a mountaintop, but she learned it from her cousin, Nick Springer. He is one of the grittiest guys we know. She also recently observed grit in action when we watched the 2016 Rio Paralympics Games. During the Games, she watched Team Possible members Abby Dunkin , Mackenzie Soldan  and the gritty USA women’s wheelchair basketball team win a gold. In the pool she watched Cortney Jordan add to her medal count; while the gritty veteran, Brad Snyder set a world record in 100M freestyle. These champions embody grit and grace.

Caitlin and I love how Mackenzie Soldan defines grit:

“Grit is a good word. I would say it is taking a situation and fighting your way through it. Sometimes you have to fight for a long time, and sometimes it’s for shorter periods of time. Grit is having the drive to achieve something you want and not letting anything stop you. Even if it takes beating down the same problem or obstacle again and again. To have grit you don’t have to be a tough person, it is just a choice that you can make for yourself.”

So what choice are you going to make for yourself? We choose GRIT!

#RoadtoRio

As the athletes train hard preparing for Rio, I thought I would share five bits of information about the Paralympic Games and Team Possible to help you get ready for Rio.

#1 The Paralympic Games were founded by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish doctor born in Germany who sought refugee in England during World War II. “Poppa,” as he was called by his patients and staff, Guttmann was in charge of the spinal cord injury unit for the Stoke Mandeville Hospital where he revolutionized care for patients and introduced sports into the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. He shared his vision of the “Paralympic Games” with the world on July 28,1948. It was the same day King George VI opened the post-war 1948 Olympic Games in London. During this first adaptive sports competition, 14 athletes (12 men and 2 women) competed in archery.

Guttmann paralympics.org.uk

Dr. Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann    Photo Credit: paralympics.org.uk

#2 This year 22 different sports will be played at the Rio Games. Many sports are also played by able-bodied athletes such as track, swimming, triathlon, archery, and table tennis. However, some are unique to the Paralympics like wheelchair rugby, boccia, and goalball. To learn more about the classification of athletes, rules of the sports and to view video highlights on each sport. Check out the Rio Paralympic Games website.

Goalball telegraph.co.uk

Paralympic Goalball  Photo Credit: telegraph.co.uk      

#3 Over 4,000 athletes from more than 170 countries will compete in the Games which begin on September 7th and run until September 18th. For the first time in Paralympic history the Games will be televised by NBC and NBCSN for over 60 hours of coverage. To learn more about viewing hours in the US, check out Team USA’s website.

#4 Team Possible Update: Sydney Collier will be riding for Team USA. McKenna Dahl will be shooting in Rio, and Cortney Jordan hopes to be swimming her way to the podium.  Mackenzie Soldan and Abby Dunkin will be playing together on the women’s wheelchair basketball team.

#5 Team Possible Hugs: Para-equestrian rider, Sydney Collier, recently hugged First Lady, Michelle Obama, at the 100 Day countdown to Rio. Blade runner and aspiring Paralympian, Rio Woolf , got a huge hug from Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida.

Rio and Prince Harry dailymail.co.uk

Rio gets a big hug from Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in Orlando. Photo Credit: Getty Images 

Now, get ready to cheer on all of the amazing athletes who are on the #RoadtoRio. 

Remember, keep believing in the possible!

Jen

Malat Wei: Believer in the Power of Sports

20141012_132229 (1)

Malat with the flag of his birthplace, South Sudan. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I want to share Malat Wei’s story. It is a truly remarkable story that is full of hope and demonstrates the power of sports.

Malat was born in South Sudan during the second civil war. At the age of three, Malat contracted polio, which left him with paralysis in his lower limbs. At the age of five, Malat and his family had to leave their home in war-torn South Sudan to seek refuge in Ethiopia. During their journey, they walked hundreds of miles, slept in the jungle and crossed dangerous rivers. Once at the refugee camp, Malat started to create a new life- one that embraced the power of sports.

What is your sports story? 

My sports life started when I was in the refugee camp called (Dimma) in Ethiopia where all the South Sudanese families stayed because of the war that was going on in Sudan. The camp was full of so many tribes. The two biggest tribes were Dinka and Nuer. In order for us to get along in the camp, we had to learn each other’s languages.

I was the only “different” kid in the village, but not less.  I did everything with my friends from climbing fruits trees, to going to the river to fish, to building huts, and so much more. I got along with all the kids, and I spoke both languages, which made it easier to build friendships.

soccer.ball_.digital.democracy.500

Soccer ball made of plastic bags and twine. Photo Credit: pps.org

One day, I was bored and I saw all my friends playing soccer with a ball made out of plastic bags and twine. They played for hours in the hot sun. In the back of my mind, I said “If I go out there and join them, what will they think?” I had all kinds of questions going on in my mind at that moment, but I stopped overthinking it and went out. I yelled at my friend to pass me the ball, and he did. I hit the soccer ball back to him really hard with my hand.  He couldn’t believe what had just happened. From then on, I played soccer with my hands. For ten years, I would crawl in the dirt or mud and over rocks just to play. 

Screenshot_2015-11-30-23-47-54.png

This hut is similar to the hut Malat lived in with his family while at the refugee camp in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

Growing up in the refugee camp, I didn’t feel alienated. All the kids knew who I was because I was the only kid that was on the ground playing soccer with able-bodied kids. Soccer was the only sport all the kids played in the village. We did not have everything we needed, but we appreciated what we had. We just kept on living and hoping one day something wonderful was going to happen to us. One of my biggest dreams was to come to America, and it came true.

In 2006, I came to America with my family not knowing any English. We struggled learning it, but eventually we wrapped our heads around it. Now, we speak and write it. In 2008, I started to hang out with some of the kids in my apartment complex and going to the park. At that time I had a big hospital chair with one broken leg rest. I started playing basketball with the kids at the park, and they kept telling me I should play wheelchair basketball. I told them that I didn’t know anything about wheelchair sports. One of my friends told me to go look it up on the internet. I did not have a computer or know how to use one. So I went to church one Sunday and asked my church friends if they knew anything about wheelchair sports. They said, “No.” But, they agreed to search online about it for me. The next Sunday, they told me that they had found a center near where I lived. It was about a 30 minute drive.

On Monday, one of my friends picked me up and we drove me to the center. I was very exited. I couldn’t wait! When we got there, I met Peggy Turner who welcomed me with open arms. I still remember everything like it was yesterday. She showed me pictures of all kinds of wheelchair sports on the wall. There were pictures of wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track, wheelchair ruby, and so much more.

Then, she saved the best for last! We headed down the hall to where the action was going down. Before we even got in the gym, I could hear the wheelchairs banging and the players yelling. Peggy opened the door, and I rolled in with my big hospital chair.  All the players stopped playing and greeted me. They couldn’t believe the chair I was sitting in. My chair was heavy and very wide. Their wheelchairs were light and fitted. One player let me try his sports chair.  When I got in it, I couldn’t stop pushing around the gym. The wheelchair was very light and fast. I had speed, but I didn’t know how to pick up the ball from the ground. One of the players leaned over and showed me how to pick up the ball. I practiced picking the ball up several times until it was easy.  That day, I knew this was where I belonged.  

What sports accomplishments are you most proud of? 

facebook_1448234857310 (1)

Malat playing proudly for Team USA Photo Credit: FaceBook Malat Wei

I am mostly proud of helping my team bring the first National Championship to Houston, Texas. It was the first championship since the program started.

I am also proud of  being  selected to try out for the Under 23 USA National Team. Not too many players in the country get selected, but I ended up on the wood floor with the future Paralympic ball players. It was such an honor to wear those three letters on my chest. Hopefully, one day I will wear them again on the big stage to represent the greatest country on the planet, USA, and my home-country of South Sudan. 

What is your training schedule?  

Currently, I am playing professional wheelchair basketball in France. On Mondays, I shoot around for 2 hours and later do cardio. On Tuesdays, I shoot around in the afternoon and then practice with the team in the evenings for two hours. On Thursdays, I shoot around and lift weights. I practice with the team on Fridays and have games on Saturdays. 

What is on your playlist when you are working out? 

I have all kinds of music on my phone, but I don’t listen to it most of the time.  Instead, I listen to motivational speakers like Eric Thomas, Les Brown, and Tony Robbins. I like to feed my brain with positive words.

What books inspire you?

51DVbVOCedL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela Photo Credit: Amazon.com

I love to read. I have read many inspiring books. Some of my favorites are: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Power Of Thinking Positive by Normal Vincent Peale, Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, and of course, The Bible.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going on tough workouts or bad days? 

What keeps me going in life is my family. My family is everything.  They are my weakness and my strength. Next is my country of South Sudan. There are so many disabled kids and wounded warriors there who are struggling to live each day. They are not enjoying life and playing sports like I am doing. I think is my responsibility to return to them and help them out. Lastly, all the people who are doubting me. I will prove them wrong.

How do you define ability? 

I think we all have an ability to be something in this world. It’s up to you to bring it out. When you find it, nothing can stop you whether it is in sports or life. Before we came out of our mother’s womb, we have the ability to be someone. But this world is full of people who want to bring us down and that is why it takes so long to become who we are meant to be.

IMG_20151007_222619

Malat showing his grit and his strength. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

How do you define grit?

Grit is something inside you that keeps you going, no matter what. Grit is when you tell yourself, “I can. Instead of, I can’t.” Basically, it is not giving up on your goal. William Hernandez is one of the grittiest individuals I know. When Willie was a college student, he had a vision to change the way the sport chair and everyday chair look. As an engineering student at UTA, he started Per4Max wheelchair Company where he designed these chairs and built them. In the first year, the company sold one chair. But, he never gave up because his “WHY” was bigger than him. He saw the vision clearly. His dream was to change the lives of people in the wheelchair community, and he finally made it happen with his partners. When you know your “WHY,” nothing can stop you.

What superpowers do you possess?

When you are having a bad day and you come around me, you will have a positive day! Ha!Ha! I think that is my superpower!

14 - 1

Malat smiling on the court and in life. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

What advice do you have for other athletes?

Always have a positive attitude around your teammates. A positive attitude will get you wherever you want to go in life, and not just in sports. Try all kinds of sports. If you don’t feel comfortable with that particular sport, then move on to the next one. Keep going until you find the sport that suits you best. Then, inspire other people to be positive and to be themselves. Appreciate every single moment in life. When people are doubting you, just handle the pressure like a diamond and shine on. Finally, don’t be amazed… be amazing and have lots of fun!

IMG_20151025_220833

Malat with his family. Photo Credit: Malat Wei

Who would you like to thank?

First of all, I would like to thank my mother who brought me and my four siblings to the land of opportunity to escape the war zone. I would not have made it to America without her. I put God first, but my mother is the next in line. That’s how much respect I have for her. I would also like to thank all the people who have supported me from the first day I landed in Houston. I would really like to thank my friends in the sports world who have helped me to develop my game.

Any other additional comments you want to share?

Yes, let’s make the world a better place for everyone. Let’s create a place where we all care about one another and treat each other with equality, respect and love.

Abby Dunkin: Wheelchair Basketball Champion and Texas Track Star

Abby Dunkin shooting for Team USA Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Abby Dunkin shooting for Team USA Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Abby Dunkin has proven herself on the track, and now she is working hard to prove herself on the court. This tough young woman keeps believing in her faith and herself to meet life’s challenges. Here’s her sports story…

What is your hometown? It is New Braunfels, Texas. 

What sports do you play? I focus on wheelchair basketball. I have competed in wheelchair track and shot put in the past.

What superpowers do you posses? Good Lord, I don’t know. That’s a good one. Through out this whole journey, it has been my strength.

How would you define strength? Are you talking about mental, emotional or physical? All of them. I think my mental and emotional strength have come a long way. Physically, as any athlete, you always want to get stronger. I have a lot of work to do in that area.

Abby Dunkin smiling after finishing first in the 400m at the Texas State Championship. Photo Credit: reporternews.com

Abby Dunkin smiling after finishing first in the 400m at the Texas State Championship. Photo Credit: reporternews.com

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? When I won three events at the state meet. It was such a blessing. It was definitely one of my top ten coolest moments.

In 2014, as a senior, Abby competed in the first state track championship to include wheelchair events in Texas. It was an important moment for Abby and all high school track athletes in Texas. It demonstrated great progress and further inclusion of adaptive athletes in interscholastic sports.  At the championship, Abby won the 100m, 400m and shot put.  However, the highlight of the meet was when Abby stopped after she crossed the finish line in the 400m and waited for the three other female track athletes to finish. They then marked this triumphant moment together with a victory lap. The crowd responded with a standing ovation while the coaches and officials wiped tears from their faces. Reminding us of the power of sport and the Paralympic mission “To make for a more inclusive society for people with an impairment through para-sport.”

Team USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Just recently in August, Abby had another incredible sports moment. She represented the United States at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Since it was her rookie year, she saw most of her play time in the early playoffs which eventually led Team USA to the gold medal game against Canada. It was an intense final match up. Fortunately, Team USA pushed hard and earned their way on to the podium. Abby reflected, “People tell you that it is an amazing experience to have the national anthem play for you after you win a gold, but no words can express the feeling. We were all tearing up.” 

She also shared stories about all of the excitement that surrounded the Parapan Games and playing at an international level like being escorted by security guards, trading apparel with athletes from other countries, and using phones to communicate with athletes who spoke languages other than English. For Abby, all of the energy and excitement of the Parapan Games have created a more intense focus on achieving her goal of playing wheelchair basketball in Rio at the 2016 Paralympic Games. She stated, “I am now ready to work even harder. I want to get to the gym more and push harder.” 

Abby Dunkin Post Toronto 2015 Parapan Games Pride Photo Credit: Abby Dunkin

Abby Dunkin Post Toronto 2015 Parapan Games Pride Photo Credit: Abby Dunkin

What books inspire you? The book I mostly read is The Bible. I am also really into war and military type books.

What is on your playlist when you train? I am into acoustics. I like Voice Avenue, James Bay, and Ed Sheeran.  When I am practicing free throws I listen to the band, Explosions in the Sky. The songs don’t have any words. I’m weird like that because before a game I try not to get too hyped up. Instead, I try to stay calm. I like to get focused and more into “the zone.”

Abby's favorite quote from 2 Timothy 4:7. Photo Credit: BibleGodQuotes.com

Abby’s mantra. Photo Credit: BibleGodQuotes.com

What is your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? In high school before a game, we would write our goals on our wrist. It could be something like to get more rebounds or score more points. But I would write, 2T4:7 which is a quote from The Bible. It says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.” In college, I decided to have that quote tattooed on my wrist. Now in a game, I can look down at it and it is a quick reminder and pick me up.

How would you define ability? Ability…I haven’t really thought about that. (Pause.) It is what you can do and not letting anything hold you back, no matter the circumstances.

How would you define grit and relate it to yourself? Grit is really how bad you want something. Like when you have all of these obstacles facing you, and you need to decide if you are willing to push past them or are you willing to just let it play out. I have learned to push through them.

If you’re wondering Abby’s age, she is 19. She now plays wheelchair basketball for University of Texas Arlington (UTA). This past year was the first season UTA had a women’s wheelchair basketball team, and Abby hopes for a great second season. She is studying kinesiology and plans to go into coaching or working with wounded soldiers through adaptive sports. She explains that her desire to work with wounded warriors stems from being a “military brat.” She proudly states, “My dad was a marine officer. My grandfather was a general in the Marines. We are a Marine family.”

Abby Dunkin Getting Ready for Parapan Games Photo Credit: herald-zeitung.com

Abby Dunkin Getting Ready for Parapan Games Photo Credit: herald-zeitung.com

What is your sports story? I was playing basketball in the able-bodied way, and God decided, ‘No, that is not what you are supposed to do.’ He put me in a chair and was like, ‘Here is what you are going to do.’ I could write a short story about what I have lost, but a novel about what I have gained in life. I have gained a totally new perspective not only on the game, but on life. I have a perspective now that I could never have had if I stayed able-bodied, and I don’t regret it.

When you were playing able-bodied ball, did you know about wheelchair basketball and the Paralympics? Not really. I really had no idea what it was and now that I play it. I love it way more than I did able-bodied basketball. It’s more contact. It’s more everything.

What advice do you have for other athletes? You can talk all you want about how bad you want it, but it does’t matter unless you do something about it. If you want it, go get it. Nothing is holding you back.

What are your workouts like? We do weights which is pretty much all upper body. For conditioning, we push around the gym a lot. We do mostly sprints. The worst are when we do a 12 minute push. It is when you sprint around the gym for 12 minutes. It sucks.  And, we practice lots of shooting.

Abby Dunkin at Texas State Championship

Abby Dunkin at Texas State Championship Photo Credit: Melissa Dunkin

Who would you like to thank? My biggest supporter is my mom. She has been awesome. I want to thank everyone at UTA. All of my teammates at UTA and in New Braunfels. My whole community in New Braunfels has been amazing. They have been there since I got in a wheelchair. I really want to thank everyone who has helped me along the way. It has been a huge blessing.

To learn more about Abby you can read these articles:

Dallas News “A year ago I was in deep depression,” she said. “Not where I needed to be. But God has opened so many doors, and I’ve realized there’s more out there for me.”

Yahoo News “We can accomplish the same goal,” she said. 

Washington News “Being able to compete with them was special. We’re just laying the foundation for something bigger.”