Paralympic Games to include four with Philadelphia-area connections

Rebecca Hart of Kennett Square will compete in paraequestrian dressage at the Paralympic Games in London. She will take part with her horse, Lord Ludger.
Rebecca Hart of Kennett Square will compete in paraequestrian dressage at the Paralympic Games in London. She will take part with her horse, Lord Ludger. (LINDSAY YOSAY McCALL)
Posted: August 29, 2012

More than 4,000 athletes - including 227 Americans - are scheduled to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London that are set to start Wednesday and run through Sept. 9.

This will be the second-largest sporting event in the world, after the Olympic Games. Disabled athletes will earn medals in 19 sports, including cycling, judo, powerlifting, sailing, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby.

Twenty Americans are military veterans or active-duty service members, including Navy Lt. Bradley Snyder, who lost his vision in September 2011 while serving in Afghanistan. He will compete in swimming on the one-year anniversary of his injury.

Since Seoul in 1988, the Paralympics have followed immediately after the Olympics in the same cities and venues.

Here are the stories of four athletes with Philadelphia-area connections:

April Holmes, 100 meters

April Holmes will tell you she doesn't remember how it happened. One moment she was running for a SEPTA train at 30th Street Station. A moment later she was under the train, her left leg crushed. The doctor who amputated it, William DeLong, told her about the Paralympics.

Holmes, of Somerdale, had been an outstanding runner at Camden High and an all-American at Norfolk State University before her accident. She won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the Paralympics in Beijing and holds the world record for a Paralympian at 12.98 seconds.

She is 39, old for a sprinter, but going to London to defend her gold medal.

She trains in Florida much of the year and uses the same type of artificial leg, the Cheetah Flex Foot, as South African phenomenon Oscar Pistorius, who recently competed in the Olympics, running 400 meters in 45.44 seconds. Pistorius showed the world what the disabled are capable of achieving. He also will run in the Paralympics.

"I think it was magical," Holmes said of Pistorius. "I think he inspired a whole lot of people. He gained a lot of respect for doing what he did. Of course I cheered him on. He's a good friend of mine. He's a very good ambassador for Paralympic sport."

And so is she.

"I told God if he gave [a gold medal] to me I'd take it pretty much everywhere I went and show it to people and share my experience with them," Holmes said. "And when people can share journeys and experiences in life, it's usually a very productive thing."

Before the train accident, Holmes was suffocating in a corporate desk job. Since the accident and her success as a Paralympic athlete, she said she has found meaning and purpose in her life. She has met the president, and attended a state dinner at the White House. One of her favorite things to do at the Paralympics is asking other competitors about their disabilities, and how they've overcome them to be top athletes. She loves hearing their stories.

Rebecca Hart, dressage

Rebecca Hart, 27, grew up in Erie, Pa., but the last seven years has lived in Kennett Square, the heart of local horse country, because her art is in paraequestrian dressage.

"I was supposed to be here for six months," Hart said, "and I ended up never leaving. I love the program, and I love the area, and they can't get rid of me now."

Hart trains with Missy Ransehausen and her mother, Jessica, at Blue Hill Farm. She will be competing with her horse, Lord Ludger.

She describes her event as "ballet on horseback" and said judging is "based on the harmony between you and your horse, how effortless and beautiful you can make it look."

Hart suffers from a genetic disease that causes muscle weakness and paralysis from her midback down. Since she can't use her legs, she rides with two whips and uses them to cue the horse.

"From the time I was 10 until now I have dedicated my entire life to perfect the art as much as anyone can," Hart said. She called it "phenomenal to represent my country."

She couldn't compete were it not for generous financial backers, trainers, and family, and added, "It's such an honor to finally be able to give them back something."

Her horse, she noted, flew to London on a Federal Express jet.

"We literally Fed-Ex our horses to London," she said. "They handle the traveling really well. Most horses that go on an airplane are competitive. It's not that big of a jump to go from a horse trailer to an airplane."

Ron Harvey, rowing

Ron Harvey, 41, grew up in Downingtown but didn't begin rowing until he went away to college in Boston.

He fell in love with the sport and went to the Olympic trials in 2000, although he didn't make the team.

In 2001, he was hurt in a bicycle accident, hitting some gravel on a descent, flipping into a signpost and guardrail, and injuring his spine. He's been a paraplegic ever since. As soon as he could, he got back into rowing and will compete in a single shell in London.

Rowing made its debut in the Beijing Paralympics, and there Harvey came in fifth. The competition has continued to expand and improve. He finished fourth last year in the world championships.

"I've been working hard this year," he said, "so I'm hoping to do better."

Harvey, who lives in Long Beach, Calif., works as an engineer but still practices and works out seven days a week.

"In able-bodied rowing," he said, "most of your power comes from your legs and some from your back. In my category, that is no longer true. What is left of the stroke with the arms and shoulders, that is the same. The boat certainly doesn't go as fast. Most of the feel is the same, and the mechanics are the same."

He has loved competing and representing his country.

"The biggest thing that anyone can take away from the Paramedics," he said, "is that every competitor has some sort of disability, and they are still able to compete and set goals and go out and train very hard to be able to go to an international event like this. Races are very competitive."

Cheryl Leitner, wheelchair sprints

Cheryl Leitner, 29, of Toms River, N.J., is a track athlete who competes in a wheelchair. She suffered a spinal cord injury at birth and is a quadriplegic, though she has function in her triceps and biceps.

This will be her third Paralympics, and she will compete in the 100 and 200 races. She finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in those races in Beijing.

Her fastest times are 21.28 for the 100 and 41.99 for the 200. Leitner volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and went to school to become a jeweler.

"I've been training and working hard for the last four years," she said. "I'm hoping to medal, but I'm going to do the best I can.

"We train just as hard, and we're just as dedicated. We have a lot in common with Olympic athletes."


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com, and on Twitter @michaelvitez

 

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