US Sled Hockey: Going for Gold x2

140311jk-hockey-007Following their  3-0 win over Canada today, the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team goes on to face Russia in the Gold Medal match on Saturday, March 15. If they win, they will defend their Vancouver Gold medal, making history as the first team to win consecutive Paralympic Games titles.

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Known as “sledge hockey” in most of the world, the U.S. calls it “sled hockey.” It was invented in Sweden in the 1960s as a form of rehabilitation, and is designed to allow athletes with physical disabilities (e.g. those with spinal cord injuries or amputations) to play ice hockey.

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Of note, four military veterans are part of the U.S. team:

  • Goalkeeper Jen Lee (San Francisco, Calif.) – Sergeant, U.S. Army
  • Defenseman Rico Roman (Portland, Ore.) – Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army (Retired)
  • Forward Paul Schaus (Buffalo, N.Y.) – Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
  • Forward Josh Sweeney (Phoenix, Ariz.) – Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Love this photo with a view of the puck in the net

Love this photo with a view of the puck in the net

According to SledHockeyUSA.org:

Equipment for this sport consists of a light weight tubular framed sled, about 4-5 feet long and approximately 3 inches off the ice, with two hockey skate blades mounted beneath the seat. A portion of the front frame rests on the ice and provides lateral stability. Straps around the ankles, knees and waist securely hold the player on the sled. Two 1.5 feet “sticks” are used. The sticks are modified hockey sticks with 4 cm teeth attached to the bottom of the non-blade end. Leaning left or right while digging the stick into the ice, turns the sled. Players slide to a stop on one or both blades like a skater. All players wear regulation protective hockey equipment.

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Don’t miss it! NBC will air the Gold medal game – US vs. Russia – at 1pm ET on Saturday, March 15.

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Snow Returns to Sochi

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Over the last few days, the combo of rain and fog has made for more tough conditions for the athletes. These moody photos aren’t the typical shots you see from a Winter Paralympic Games! (Another big thanks to Joe Kusumoto for sharing the images.)

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But today, Sochi finally got some snow.

According to alpine skier Stephanie Jallen, the course was shaping up: “We suddenly went from spring back to winter. It made it tough that we couldn’t warm up in those conditions, but luckily the race track was pretty good. Especially the second run, the track was amazing.”

Laurie Stephens took bronze in the slalom today, adding to her bronze medals in downhill and super-G earlier in the week. This makes her a 7-time medalist, though it’s her first in slalom.

Fierce and focused on the course, her intensity transforms into a zen-like calm post-race: “Every day is different and all of the conditions are different, you never know what’s going to happen.”

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Laurie Stephens extends medal streak with slalom bronze

 

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Stephanie Jallen gets a fist bump from USA coach Ray Watkins

 

In overall medal count, Russia is dominating, with 47 total (16 gold!) Ukraine follows with 14 medals (3 gold.) The U.S. and Canada rank next with 8 medals each. While Canada has already won 2 gold, Team USA is still in search of its first gold medal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Vulnerability

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First Kiss, Tatia Pilieva

In Tatia Pliieva’s “First Kiss” film, she asks 20 strangers to kiss for the first time. (If you haven’t seen it yet – give it a shot! It will be 3 minutes and 28 seconds well spent!) To me, it offers the perfect storyline of vulnerability:

+Nervous excitement. They’re giddy and shy.

+Then a bit scary, as the strangers try to figure out how to break the ice and lean in for a kiss.

+Awkwardness follows as they experience the first few moments of the “new” — which in many cases, quickly transforms into fun: maybe this can be more fun than expected! Pleasure follows fear.

+Then relief. (For the viewer too?)

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First Kiss, Tatia Pilieva

+And ultimately: connection. Some looked like they didn’t want to stop!

This is vulnerability: breaking through the fear and nerves and uncertainty to come out on the other side with a new connection; getting through the “crunchiness” of what’s uncomfortable to the sweetness and beauty that’s underneath.

It reminds me of Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection:

“Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”

“Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.”

“…recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude, and grace.”

I am absolutely confident writing business-focused or marketing content for clients, or co-writing articles under someone else’s byline. However, I often find myself frozen by a perfectionist code — the fear of failing, of creating anything less than perfect — when it comes to my own personal writing. Case in point: I never feel more vulnerable than when I’m pushing “Publish Post” on a blog, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook.

In the spirit of embracing vulnerability and imperfection, I’ve stretched myself this last week, posting more frequently than ever before in order to share stories and pictures (via my talented husband, Joe) from the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi. I’ve realized that spreading the word about the Paralympics is so much more important to me than cowering from the fear of rejection under cover of my “invulnerability cloak.”

ImageDoes Alana Nichols, the most decorated U.S. Paralympian in Sochi, hold back on the Super G? No way. What about Tyler Walker, Danelle Umstead, Stephani Victor, Stephanie Jallen, Laurie Stephens (just to name a few of my Paralympian inspirations!)…? Not a chance.

To succeed, they have to put everything out there. They sometimes fall – hard – but they recover. They heal; they gain strength; and they get back out there.

Writing blog posts isn’t the same as racing 70mph down a slick race course on a single ski. But they do both require being vulnerable and simply going for it. Like any athletic, creative, business or personal endeavor, I truly believe that the best path to improvement is being vulnerable and letting go.

I’m grateful for every single one of my readers. Today, 400 people have read my blog – a number that at once humbles me and makes my head kind of explode! It makes my breathing more shallow, my chest constrict and my shoulders scrunch up: all the physical symptoms I’ve learned to recognize for when I’m feeling most exposed.

But just like Pllieva’s strangers kissing, I’m going to soften into the discomfort, allowing myself to be vulnerable in order to reach connection. So to my friends, family – and strangers too – I’m blowing you all a kiss!

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Paralympic Ups & Downs

140310jk-jallen-002While we’re asleep here in the U.S., the Paralympic skiers are competing,  leaving everything on the course. I’ve been a bit sleep-deprived this week, as I’m compelled to check my phone and Facebook every time I wake up in the wee hours of the morning!

This morning I was met with updates that hit me in the heart — 18-year old Stephanie Jallen’s Super G bronze (her first Paralympic medal!) — and then in the gut: two more scary crashes during the women’s mono-skiing Super G. The U.S. Team in particular has had several crashes in competition so far, and I am so incredibly relieved to know that Alana Nichols, Stephani Victor and Tyler Walker are all healing and on a good path to recovery. I’m in awe, as I watch from afar their strength and spirit and the support of the team, coaches, friends and fans from around the world. Let’s all continue to send prayers and positive energy to Alana, Stephani, Tyler, and to all the athletes!

Stephanie Jallen competing in Super G

Stephanie Jallen competing in Super G

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Laurie Stephens, who took Bronze in the Super G

Stephani Victor, competing in Super G

I love my husband’s morning (my time) updates from Sochi, but today stood out, when he told me he cried (twice) during Stephanie Jallen’s award ceremony. After skiing with Stephanie at The Ski Spectacular event in Breckenridge — when she was only 9 or 10 — Joe was so excited to be there in person for her first medal.

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Stephanie was born with a rare birth defect called CHILDS — Congenital Hemidysplasia with Ichthyosiform Erythroderma and Limb Defects Syndrome. CHILDS is a chromosomal disorder that affects the entire left side of the body, leaving Jallen with only one leg and one fully developed arm. Instructors initially wanted to put Stephanie in a mono-ski, but she insisted on learning to ski standing up.

From today’s USA Daily: “This is absolutely incredible,” Jallen said. “It’s something I only dreamed about. I have never been a bigger believer that dreams come true than right now. I’ve imagined it for the last nine years of my life, and in my very first run in the Paralympic Games I score a bronze.”

Take note: this is not the last time you’ll hear her name!140310jk-jallen-a-001140310jk-jallen-002140310jk-jallen-001

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Snow, Ice… and Air!

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The latest shots from Joe Kusumoto — 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympic Games. Slideshow below:

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Breaking Barriers in Sochi

140307jk-openingceremony-001At the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony today, “breaking the ice” was an apt theme for breaking down barriers and breaking down stereotypes — not only for athletes competing in the Paralympics, but for people around the world.

I don’t want to cloud the competition and the focus on the athletes with political posturing, but I’d be remiss not to say that I  hope this “breaking the ice” metaphor can also extend to the situation with Ukraine. According to my husband, who was at the Ceremony, one of the most moving moments was “hearing the place go nuts for the solo Ukrainian athlete.” Even for those of us who were watching on TV, we felt that energy too.

And as my friend — and unofficial, Facebook-fan-favorite, Olympic & Paralympic commentator — John Carideo posted yesterday, “I think [the Ukrainian athletes] coming into the stadium, under their own flag would be the most powerful unifying message that could be sent.” Agreed. Let’s hope that’s a small step towards peace.

Following are some images from Joe Kusumoto that capture the power and grace of the Opening Ceremony — just a teaser for the power and grace that will follow from the 587 athletes competing on the snow and ice over the next nine days.140307jk-openingceremony-002

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I’ll leave you today with an excerpt from IPC President Sir Philip Craven’s Opening Ceremony speech:

Thirty-four years ago when the old Soviet Union declined the opportunity to stage the 1980 Paralympic Games in Moscow, the prospect of Russia staging its first Paralympic Games was nothing but a dream. But dreams do come true, and since winning the Games seven years ago, this part of Russia has undergone a monumental transformation. However, the biggest transformation for this country is still yet to come. In the same way that the city of Sochi has built a barrier free environment for athletes and officials to enjoy, I call upon all those who experience these Games to have barrier free minds, too.

And to the athletes, he said:

You have here superb sporting venues to express your amazing talents and live up to the Paralympic values of determination and courage, inspiration and equality. Together you are the catalysts for change. United as one, you have the ability to change perceptions and alter attitudes like no other. You arrive here as the best prepared athletes ever to attend a Paralympic Winter Games. You will leave as role models, heroes, pioneers and most of all, Proud Paralympians.

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Paralympic Primer – Sochi 2014

140305jk-sochi-002It’s simple: I’m passionate about The Paralympic Games.

I worked as a press officer for U.S. Paralympics Swimming in Athens and Beijing, and for the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team in Torino. When pregnant in 2010, I stayed involved by writing a few blogs for Women’s Adventure Magazine from Vancouver. My photographer husband and I have been so lucky to be part of this movement – and really, this extended family – together. He’s been shooting the Paralympics since Athens and is currently in Sochi capturing these amazing athletes in action.

For those not close to the Paralympics, though, there remains quite a bit of confusion (even for some of my closest friends and family.) So, on the eve of the Paralympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony, I’d like to offer a quick overview to get everyone in the Paralympic spirit!

First off, a few fast facts:

  • The Paralympic Winter Games take place March 7-16, at the same venues as the Olympics, in Sochi.
  • The name “Paralympics” is not about “paraplegia.” It combines the Greek preposition “para” (meaning beside/alongside) and “Olympic.” The Olympics and the Paralympics are separate, but exist side by side.
  • I often hear people mistakenly say “Para-Olympics” – don’t do it; it’s the “Paralympics.”
  • 700 athletes from 45 countries will compete in Sochi. It is poised to be the biggest Paralympic Winter Games ever, with 200 more athletes compared to Vancouver, and competitors from four new countries represented.
  • It is an elite competition, akin to the Olympics, with 72 medal events.
  • Athletes will compete in five sports: Alpine Skiing, Para-Snowboarding (making its Paralympic debut at Sochi), Nordic Skiing (including biathalon and cross-country skiing), Wheelchair Curling and Sled Hockey.
  • The six disciplines include: Amputee; Cerebral Palsy (including traumatic brain injury or stroke, which affect muscle control, balance or coordination); Visually Impaired/“VI” (ranging from partial sight to total blindness); Wheelchair (including athletes with spinal cord injuries, as well as some with lower limb amputations or polio); Intellectual Disability (those who have a significant impairment in intellectual functioning with associated limitations in adaptive behavior); Les Autres (including people with a mobility impairment, e.g. Dwarfism, Multiple Sclerosis, that is not included in the other categories.)

140305jk-sochi-003Where to Watch

While I’ve heard many complaints about the lack of primetime coverage, I have to say I’m personally thrilled to see this year’s broadcast line-up. It continues to grow every year, and slowly but surely, I believe that the Paralympics will get the attention it deserves.

In the next week and a half, NBC Olympics and the USOC will broadcast an unprecedented 52 hours of coverage (27 of which will be live) for the Sochi Paralympic Games.

  • First chance to watch: Friday, March 7, 11:00am ET, Opening Ceremony on NBCSN
  • Complete broadcast schedule is here (Scroll down the page, where it’s not segmented out by sport, and where you’ll see some more reasonable viewing hours – e.g. the Sled Hockey game times, as well as Daily Paralympic Coverage.)
  • TeamUSA.org will also live stream all events
Alana Nichols competing in Vancouver (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

Alana Nichols competing in Vancouver (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

Want to Read / See More?

In case you’re interested in learning more -and for those of you who said your kids were asking questions! – here are a few more links to start with.

  • Story I wrote from Vancouver about Danelle Umstead, a visually impaired skier, whose husband is her racing guide.
  • Story I wrote from Vancouver about Alana Nichols, a two-sport phenom in Alpine Skiing and Wheelchair Basketball (summer games), who recently played a Paul Rudd prank on Conan O’Brien (hysterical – absolutely worth watching!)
  • Link to shots from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympic Games from my husband, Joe Kusumoto.
  • Additional resources from U.S. Paralympics.

I promote what I love. And I truly hope that more people are able to hear the stories, witness the athleticism and get an opportunity to connect – even if in small ways – with the Paralympians and the Paralympic Movement.

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