Jon McCullough, a two-time Paralympian and executive director of BlazeSports, carries the torch during the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, England.

Sunday Conversation with … Jon McCullough

Paralympian advocates for disabled athletesParalympian advocates for disabled athletes

Let the games begin. The 2014 Paralympic Games.

For 10 days beginning Friday some 700 athletes will compete in Sochi, Russia, only they will take on challenges like the “Russian Trampoline” blind or on one ski. Americans will be able to watch these elite competitors with physical and intellectual disabilities as never before because NBC and NBCSN has scheduled an unprecedented 52 hours of coverage, including 27 hours of live competition.

“With these games being broadcast live for the first time in the U.S., we have an opportunity to really change the way people look at people with disabilities,” said Jon McCullough, executive director of BlazeSports, an Atlanta-based nonprofit founded for the 1996 Paralympic Games to promote sports for athletes with disabilities.

But McCullough, a two-time Paralympian who serves on the International Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Council and the board of U.S. Soccer, will be in Sochi watching the Games in person. “I’m excited for ice sledge hockey,” he said of the sport in which players use double-blade sleds instead of skates. “To me, this is an opportunity to get Canada back.”

Q: You played soccer in the 1996 and 2004 Summer Paralympic Games. What is your disability?

A: I was 19 and a rescue swimmer in the U.S. Coast Guard. We were in rough seas and a metal object fell square on my head and crushed my head, neck and shoulders. The part of my brain that controls physical function was damaged and I went through six years of rehab.

Q: How did sports help you recover?

A: I was angry for a good four years then I discovered the Paralympics. Not only could I function, I thought of myself as an elite athlete. When you can excel in the physical realm of sport, you realize that you can excel in a lot of other areas of your life.

Q: You don’t look disabled. Does that work for or against you?

A: I have a significant disability but I look acceptable to the able-bodied culture. I like to think that has allowed me to do an awful lot to link the two worlds.

Q: Where is the Paralympic movement right now?

A: It has gone a great distance but it is not anywhere close to where it needs to be, particularly outside progressive cities.

Q: Is Atlanta considered progressive?

A: This is a fortunate place for disabled athletes. We have Shepherd Center. We were a Paralympic city — BlazeSports is a legacy of the 1996 Games. I do want to work with other organizations here to do more for disabled athletes and veterans.

Q: What is holding the Paralympic movement back?

A: There is still the perception that disabled athletes can’t compete because we will hurt ourselves or embarrass ourselves. A lot of the same arguments were used against the women’s sports movement.

Q: What would it take to change those perceptions?

A: I think more public awareness and more television coverage. In my mind, these Paralympics are just a warm up for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The time zone there works to our advantage. For Atlantans, it is hard to relate to the Sochi Games even given our awful winter and how impressed we are with people who can excel on ice — because we did not.

Q: What can Paralympians teach able-bodied people?

A: When we recognize the athletic skills of someone playing boccia who has no ability to move anything below their neck, that is significant and a true appreciation of sport.

Q: We’ve talked about the skill involved. But are the Games fun?

A: That is why you do them. You have an instant bond because everyone has confronted a disability. Nothing compares to being in the Olympic Village where you will see a wheelchair athlete offering a hand to a blind athlete from another country. Talk about an inclusive world.

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