By Allison Gasparetti
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martha Ruether climbed out of the pool and listened to the crowd cheering, basking in the moment.
The visually impaired swimmer had finished second in her preliminary heat of the 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Paralympic trials Thursday, just about the same time that, a 10-minute drive away, competitors were racing for a spot on the American roster in the 200 meters on the track at Johnson C. Smith University.
For the first time, the U.S. Paralympic trials in three sports — track and field, swimming and cycling — are being held simultaneously in the same city. Ruether likes the idea.
“I think it’s really cool, and it’s a really helpful experience for the Paralympics to have it be such a big thing, so people notice it,” said Ruether, from Allegany, N.Y. “When we come to meets like this and it’s just swimming everybody’s like, ‘Oh, look at the special swimmers, it’s a little meet,’ but when they have this with cycling and track, it’s a big thing.”
Generating excitement both within the Paralympic community and the wider sports world is a big part of organizers’ plan. The United States has historically paid relatively little attention to the Paralympics.
Julie O’Neill, managing director of the Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the idea of hosting the three major trials in one city has been bouncing around since the 2012 Olympics.
“It just didn’t come to fruition based on timing and circumstances going into London,” O’Neill said. “When we went to schedule trials, the three sports got together and talked about it again and made the decision to go for it.”
For O’Neill, Charlotte was an easy choice. The city has the resources to handle the more than 400 athletes who will make it to the starting line this week, she said.
“It’s been great,” she said. “Everybody local here in Charlotte has been 110 percent helpful, whether it’s in the specific venues or different organizations around town that we’ve been working with.”
For the athletes, hosting all three trials in one city provides a sense of community and presents an opportunity to catch up with old friends and watch them compete.
One athlete, Mary Cooper of Los Angeles, both swims and does the long jump.
“I’ve only gone to competitions where they’re separate, and so it’s usually like I’ll have a swim sort of family and a track family, too,” Cooper said. “To combine them is really cool.”
Doug Youngblood, who spearheaded the local bid to host the trials, said the original fundraising goal was around $200,000. The committee’s job was made slightly more difficult since there is no precedent for hosting all three trials in one city.
“We’re kind of learning and finding out what we’ve got to spend as we go,” Youngblood said. “Without any history, we didn’t know what we were getting into and what it was going to cost altogether. We just dug in and started doing it.”
The fees for the venues were waived, but fundraising efforts still came up nearly $25,000 short.
“The biggest problem we had with it from the beginning was raising awareness,” Youngblood said. “A lot of people we talked to didn’t know the difference between Paralympics and Special Olympics.”
Partners for Parks, a local nonprofit led by Youngblood, was aiming to use that money to fund the closing ceremonies on Sunday, as well as to provide a post-competition meal for athletes.
The Charlotte Hornets’ charitable foundation, led by Michael Jordan, stepped in with a $10,000 donation to help fill the cash shortage, while others picked up the rest.
Ian Silverman, a gold medal Paralympic swimmer and world record-holder, was impressed by the gesture.
“It’s truly something special that the Charlotte Hornets organization would be able to do that,” Silverman said. “To have a sports figure like Michael Jordan back us like that, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
Joshua George, a five-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair racing, hopes that the trials-fest will encourage more people to attend. The crowd at the track Thursday was modest — made up mostly of competitors’ friends, coaches and relatives.
“We just have countless amazing athletes in Charlotte right now competing. Everyone should come out and see it,” George said. “They’re doing themselves a disfavor if they’re not.”
(NOTE: Jamestown resident Grace Norman will represent Team USA in the women’s paratriathlon and will compete in the Rio Games. She has a shot at being named to Team USA’s Track & Field team in the 400-meter run as well, but that team will be announced after the Charlotte Games.)