Unpacking her gold and bronze medals for a photo shoot, Cheri Blauwet mentions — almost apologetically — how tarnished and scratched they appear. “Wear and tear,” she says. “But it would be a shame to leave them on a shelf.”
Instead, when Blauwet tells her life story and talks about the power of sport, she often brings along some of her Paralympic hardware. She selects a few choice pieces from her collection of seven total medals won in wheelchair racing at the 2000 Sydney Games and 2004 Athens Games.
With medals in hand, Blauwet, 34, switches into public speaker mode and says that young people with disabilities often face a disheartening reality of others “lowering expectations or treating them differently.” Then, sounding every bit the determined, earnest Iowa farm girl that she is, she adds, “Paralympic sport is an opportunity to change the paradigm around disability and to help us all see that having a disability is just another way of living.”
Given her athletic accomplishments (including wheelchair victories in two Boston and two New York City marathons), her medical degree from Stanford, and her broad smile, Blauwet is a natural ambassador for athletes with disabilities. Now, she is also an integral part of the Boston 2024 bid committee, providing an athlete’s perspective and participating in the winning bid presentation to USOC board members.
Blauwet spoke at the first community meeting about the bid and plans to take part in others, becoming a public face for Boston 2024.
Members of the bid committee say Blauwet’s different experiences competing in Sydney, Athens, and the 2008 Beijing Games provide unique insight into what matters most to athletes, Paralympians and Olympians alike. The bid committee sees the Paralympics and Olympics as equally important, though the Olympics draw far more fan and media attention.
By making Blauwet part of planning and pitching the bid, Boston 2024 automatically raises the profile of Paralympic sport. That gives the bid another dimension that could appeal to IOC members.
“For us, planning the Games, I think of Cheri as an athlete,” says David Manfredi, the architect behind the bid. “For us, as Boston 2024 and the city of Boston, she can be a symbol of what we can do that maybe nobody else in the world can do at this point in time, and that is to really elevate the Paralympic Games.”
Paralympian Ann Cody, the highest-ranking American on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and bid evaluator for multiple Games at both the IOC and US levels, has been a mentor to Blauwet. The IPC is the Paralympic governing body equivalent of the IOC. The IPC president votes for host cities, and will be part of the final selection process for the 2024 Summer Games, which will happen in 2017.
Cody calls Blauwet, who chairs the IPC’s Medical Committee, a “rising leader” in the organization.
When asked what Blauwet’s involvement with Boston 2024 means, Cody says, “It tells us that the bid leaders are consulting Paralympic experts in their city. They know who they are. It sends the message that the Paralympic Games will get the appropriate amount of attention, consideration, and resources.”
In competition, an ‘epiphany’
Paralyzed from the waist down at 16 months old after an accident on her family’s Larchwood, Iowa, farm, Blauwet didn’t naturally gravitate toward wheelchair racing. It took her school’s track coach, Jay Rozeboom, nearly a year to convince her to try the sport. Rozeboom first approached Blauwet with the idea when she was in seventh grade. She thought he was crazy. She wanted to blend in with classmates, not stick out circling the track in her wheelchair. But Rozeboom didn’t give up.
“I always noticed her in the hallway,” Rozeboom says. “She had a lot of energy. Nothing ever slowed her down, nothing she wouldn’t try. I always thought it was too bad there wasn’t a sport for her [at the school]. I had never coached a wheelchair athlete before, but I saw wheelchair racing at the state track meet and thought it was something she could do. I wanted to get her involved.”
Eventually, Blauwet came around and showed up for the first day of spring track in eighth grade. But no one who watched her initial attempts at wheelchair racing would have predicted Paralympic success. There was a lot of trial and error practicing in her everyday chair, then a lot of careening off course in a hard-to-steer racing chair. Rozeboom remembers Blauwet crashing into a fence one of the first times she used her racing chair on the track.
To compete in the state meet, Blauwet needed to avoid disqualification and stay in her lane for one lap around the track. It was a challenge, but she did it.
At her first state meet in Des Moines, Blauwet says the wheelchair competition was “an epiphany” because it included young athletes like her. Friendships developed quickly and Blauwet recalls, “Sport was our excuse to get together.”
In Des Moines, she also saw bigger possibilities for wheelchair racing and thought, “There’s a sport here. It’s not just me pushing around circles in northwest Iowa.”
During high school, Blauwet trained most Saturdays with wheelchair racing teams in Des Moines or Minneapolis, commuting four hours each way for practice. She learned better technique, quickly improved, and dominated 100- and 400-meter high school races in Iowa. National competitions followed. After her junior year, Blauwet earned an invitation to a national development camp at the US Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Blauwet chose the University of Arizona for its elite college wheelchair racing team, then made her first Paralympic squad after her freshman year and traveled to Sydney.
Each new level of competition broadened Blauwet’s view of the world and her place in it.
“Sports opened my eyes and made me aware that people’s experiences were very different than mine,” Blauwet says. “There was so much opportunity out there, as long as you were willing to go out and find it.”
Balancing opportunities, Blauwet trained for the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics while she studied medicine. Her former coaches at the national and international level remember Blauwet as a detailed-oriented, consummately organized, quietly confident, fearless athlete. Cathy Sellers, who coached Blauwet at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, recalled how a spectacular crash in a 5,000-meter race at those Games sent Blauwet flying into the air. After the crash, Sellers rushed to Blauwet and asked, “Are you OK?” Blauwet replied, “That was so cool.”
That attitude came from more than a decade of competing.
“When you get involved with the disability sports community, especially at a high level, there’s a lot of positive peer pressure to push the envelope in terms of independence and physical ability,” says Blauwet, who married fellow Paralympian Eli Wolff in 2013. “Whatever you have, you optimize it and you own it and you are in charge of your own life. My parents were great about that, but when I got involved in sports it brought it to the next level.”
A bid for awareness
The “para” in Paralympics represents the idea that Games for athletes with disabilities should be organized parallel to the Olympics. So, some host city candidates see it as a smart strategy to incorporate Paralympians into the bid process. Past bids have prominently featured Paralympic athletes, including Chicago’s failed attempt to host the 2016 Summer Games and Madrid’s unsuccessful try for the 2012 Summer Games.
Blauwet brings a rare trifecta to Boston 2024: athlete, doctor, and long-time advocate for the Paralympics and adaptive sports.
In many ways, her role with the bid committee is an extension of her work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in sports medicine and at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Through Spaulding, she encourages participation in all levels of adaptive sports. She believes that “whether or not you aspire to be the world’s best athlete, there’s something about sports and the Paralympic Games that lights that spark in people.”
As much as the Boston 2024 bid committee hopes Blauwet helps communicate its attention to all athletes’ needs and its desire to elevate the Paralympics, Spaulding sees an opportunity to discuss the importance of sport for people with disabilities.
Dr. Ross Zafonte, vice president of medical affairs for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, says the Boston 2024 bid and Blauwet’s involvement can show “sports has a role in the health and well-being of all people, very much so those with physical and cognitive impairments.”
Win or lose when the IOC votes, Blauwet knows the Boston 2024 bid will give athletes with disabilities more local recognition. And with more recognition comes more funding and more opportunities.
“Within the community of athletes with disabilities, we really hope that this bid and the whole campaign that goes with it continues to open doors,” says Blauwet. “For the broader community, the most important legacy of this will be in how we view disabilities and athletes with disabilities. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t see athletes with disabilities as being lesser than or less athletic or less empowered or less accomplished.”