The Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged was a three-day, Olympics-esque event on Long Island for disabled children to participate in various physical activities. I didn't have to try out. I just showed up, on a warm day in June, to a large open field. The DJ was playing "We Like to Party."I signed in and was greeted by many kids around my age with varying disabilities. We had a barbecue, were given the choice between a burger or hotdog plus a bag of chips, and were told about the events we could sign up for. I signed up for just about every event I could—swimming, running, shot put, you name it. Like I said, I actually really hated sports, but my mom encouraged me to try everything. When we were given T-shirts and told how amazing we were, I thought I could end up having a good time."Watch out for this girl! I can tell she's a toughie," one of the able-bodied volunteers said to me as I balanced my plate on my stump.
"What happened to your arm?""I got hungry.""What happened to your arm?""Disease. Be careful, it's contagious." (Proceed to rub arm in questioner's face.)"What happened to your arm?""…what? OH… MY…GOD. WHERE IS IT? IT WAS JUST HERE!"One of the reasons I liked the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged so much is because no one ever asked what happened. We all had a mutual understanding of each other, and for three days, we all looked the same as everyone else. We were the normal ones; the able-bodied spectators, they were the weirdos.The first event I participated in was a foot race. I didn't win the race—I had never been much of a runner—but the adrenaline it gave me was intoxicating. I soon began to think about where I might be able to get a gold medal, and I thought I had a shot at swimming. I had always loved the water; I felt less self-conscious—more nimble, more free.
You might assume I would look at an able-bodied synchronized swimmer and wish I had a left hand, but I was really thinking about how thin she was.
I competed in freestyle and backstroke, and won. The crowd cheered, and two shiny gold medals were slipped over my head. I had never been congratulated for my physical abilities—my intellect, yes, but never my agility. I felt particularly affirmed, like I was just like all the other, normal kids at my school. Better: I was like a jock. I did this with my body, I thought. I won these medals with my strength.In between races, there was entertainment. The college where the games were held at had a synchronized swimming team. I sat next to my mom, in a big T-shirt over my bathing suit, my goggles hitched up on my forehead, and watched the water ballerinas. Digested them. Memorized their routines. Memorized the curves of their bodies, the symmetry of their limbs, the hardness of their nipples, the sparkles on their swimsuits. I didn't have language for it yet, but I already had begun to establish a hatred for my fat, graceless body in an orange one-piece from JC Penney. You might assume I would look at an able-bodied synchronized swimmer and wish I had a left hand, but I was really thinking about how thin she was and how big her boobs were. I was looking at her thinking the same things that all insecure girls look at women and think. Did I want to do her or be her?
The second I got out of the water, I burst into tears. I was always brought up to respect the rules: My mom was a teacher; my dad, a cop. You might say my regard for the rules was almost disabling. I was angry at myself. I was angry at my dad. I was angry at my competitor, who I refused to look at."You deserved to win," my dad justified when I told him why I was upset."Not by cheating." But I knew I was happy to have won—in fact, I thought I deserved to win over her. I wiped my tears, which were easily disguisable as I was wet, and I accepted my victory, because there was nothing else to do. I accepted the "congratulations!" from everyone.What is the meaning of cheating—and of fairness—in an event where everyone has accommodations? At first, I was surprised the crowd still cheered for me even when they had to have seen my dad give me help. That's when I should've learned that it didn't matter: The spectators knew these events were just a fun way of making us feel normal. We were all getting help one way or another.The realization that I wasn't a good swimmer didn't come until much later, when I tried out for my high school swim team with able-bodied students. I didn't make the cut. I couldn't really keep up; when I wanted to leave, I had difficulty even getting out of the pool. (There were no ladders.) I felt like that insecure girl again, tortured by the perfect synchronized swimmers. I didn't even finish the tryout—I told the coach I had pneumonia and left in tears.
What is the meaning of cheating—and of fairness—in an event where everyone has accommodations?
In the end, the Empire State Games didn't make me feel better at all, though they were designed to. For some people, these events can be really life-affirming. Some of my opponents went on to become very successful athletes, and the games gave them their start. These events were life-affirming for me too, briefly—it felt good to be valued for my supposed athletic ability, and I grew to enjoy swimming even more. I "trained" at Saf-T-Swim and continued to compete in the games for a few years. I thought I spent this time becoming a better swimmer. But to go on and find out I wasn't actually athletic was crushing.When I exited the pool after that fateful breaststroke race, I didn't allow myself to look at my opponent. I couldn't know how she was feeling. I couldn't know if she saw my dad pull me to the finish line. I couldn't know if she thought of me as a cheater. I couldn't know if she had a chance to feel victorious, and I took that away from her. I couldn't know if she wanted to be there or if her parents forced her. When I was accepting my gold medals, I felt like I wasn't just a fat, one-handed girl in a JC Penney swimsuit. All the times I had won before—and after; I swam 12 more times during the games—the breaststroke race, I felt strong, unstoppable. But that time was different. That time I felt empty, and I can't help but think it was a sign of the reality check that would later come in my high school pool.
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