I have an unusual sports career and my road to the Sochi 2014 Paralympics has been one of those ‘roads-less-traveled’. I sustained my spinal cord injury (transverse myelitis) when I was 13 and started doing sports at the age of 17. Since then I have competed at an elite level in three different sports. Who would have thought that would be possible! I started out in wheelchair racing and represented Finland in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics. Looking back now, I was such a novice then and little did I know where my athletic choices would take me, least of all to the Winter Paralympics in Russia.
Some time after the Atlanta Paralympics in 1996, I picked up wheelchair basketball. I really loved playing and I competed at the recreational level in Finland. But then on one of my training trips for wheelchair racing in the US I learned about the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball program and I knew that that was where I wanted to be. In 2003 I moved to Illinois and experienced some the best sports memories of my life playing wheelchair basketball. Our team won the US Women’s National Championship 3 times! I learned so much about being an athlete and also about myself. I learned what it takes for me to be the best I can be. The University of Illinois adapted sports program is one huge family, and I am truly honored to be a member. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Wherever I go for sports, I always meet my Illini family. Actually, writing this blog came about from an Illini friend who is on the Transverse Myelitis Association board. Even now in Sochi I have met some former teammates from my days at Illinois!
On my graduation from Illinois in 2010 I was offered a contract to play professional wheelchair basketball with a top club in Germany, RSV Lahn-Dill. It was an offer of a lifetime for me! Not only do not many women with disabilities get to play wheelchair basketball professionally, I was getting to play with some truly elite players from around the world. Being Finnish, I would never get the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics because Finland does not have a women’s team. Playing with RSV Lahn-Dill in the German league and in the European Champions Cup was the next best thing. I had two amazing seasons playing with RSV Lahn-Dill, and finally decided to retire from basketball after my second season when we won everything we could: the German league, the German Cup and the Champions Cup (which is a European championship league for club teams).
It was time to return to Finland. I had decided that it was time to invest in other parts of my life, such as a job and maybe family. Believe it or not, six months later I was headed to the wheelchair curling World Championships with the Finnish national team! How did that happen? Well, once an athlete, always an athlete, I guess! A friend of mine asked me to come and try wheelchair curling. It was so different from racing and basketball that at first I wasn’t sure I would really enjoy it. Then I started improving quickly and understanding the game, and I was hooked. All those years of training in racing and basketball had helped me hone my athletic coordination and ability, and now I was reaping the benefits in curling. I really enjoy challenging myself to do better in sports and curling games are super interesting and fun.
In the wheelchair curling World Championships we finished in 8th place and qualified for the Sochi Paralympics. And now here we are. The atmosphere at the Paralympics is so exciting! Meeting athletes from all over the world, the competition itself, the venues, the media, it’s all thrilling. On Friday we marched into the Fisht Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies. It was beautiful! This is the first time for Russia to host the Paralympics. The theme of the Opening Ceremonies was ‘Breaking the Ice’. Although the focus of the Paralympics is of course on sports and competition, it also breaks barriers towards disability in the Russian society and in the world. The emphasis here is on what persons with disabilities can do rather than cannot do, in other words changing attitudes and showing that disability does not mean inability.
Finland has participated in the Winter Paralympics many times, but this is the first time that the Finnish wheelchair curling team is competing at the Paralympics. Wheelchair curling became a Paralympic sport at the Torino Paralympics in 2006. Most of the other curling teams here in Sochi have been at all the Winter Paralympics where there has been curling, so we are definitely the underdog. But most of the teams here are quite even, so anyone can win on any given day. Unfortunately today we opened our games against Sweden with a close loss (6 points Finland – 7 points Sweden). Tomorrow we play against Russia and Slovakia. Finland will play against USA on March 11. In the US, NBC is showing the Paralympics for the first time ever. So check out the Paralympics on NBC and cheer team Finland and team USA on!
~ Mina Mojtahedi | March 8th, 2014