The Paralympics trace their roots to 1948, when a British hospital organized an archery tournament for World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries. What started as a rehabilitation activity soon became a movement. This summer's Tokyo Paralympics will offer 23 sports for 4,400 athletes with disabilities, from 170 nations around the world.
Several Minnesotans will be among them. While they embrace the original concept — that sports can benefit all bodies and souls — they want to make one thing clear. They are elite athletes. Some are full-time professionals in their sport. Years of training built them into world-class competitors, just like their Olympic counterparts.
Minnesota's Paralympic contenders compete in everything from swimming to table tennis to judo to wheelchair rugby. You might see some of them on NBC; the network is televising a record 1,200 hours of the Tokyo Games, which begin on Aug. 24. Expect to be inspired by their stories. Prepare to be amazed by their talent.
A swimmer's life is lived in straight lines, gliding between the lane markers from one end of the pool to the other. Mallory Weggemann had followed that pattern for years at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, until the day she came full circle.
The swimming facility on the University of Minnesota campus was named the host site for this summer's Paralympic Trials, putting Weggemann right back where she started in 2008. Two months after becoming a paraplegic, she watched the trials for the Beijing Paralympics at the aquatic center and found a source of hope. Her path toward this year's Tokyo Paralympics would run through the same place, the next step in a swimming career that had produced two Paralympic medals, 34 American records and 12 world championships.
"That pool deck was the first place I heard of the Paralympics," says Weggemann, 32. "It's where I got back into the water for the first time, and where I found happiness after trauma and loss. Every time I'm there, it's emotional."
Though the Paralympic Trials triggered nostalgia, Weggemann prefers to look forward rather than backward. Her next ambition is to race toward a third Paralympics while reshaping perceptions of people with disabilities.
Weggemann was just 18 when she was paralyzed from the abdomen down after receiving an epidural injection to treat back pain. A competitive swimmer, she thought that part of her life was over. The Paralympic movement guided the Eagan native toward new goals and dreams, fueling her 13-year career as an elite athlete.
She's using her platform to shatter stereotypes about what disabled people can do. Weggemann and her husband, Jeremy Snyder, created the TFA Group to give a voice to a community that often is overlooked. The company produces documentary films and shows featuring adaptive athletes, and Weggemann released an autobiography, "Limitless," last spring.
With the Paralympic Trials at home, the next chapter of her story will be written where it started. In the place where Weggemann found a path forward, she hopes ripping through the water will give the same kind of hope to other young people living with disabilities. It's just another way to come full circle.
"When we talk about diversity and inclusion, oftentimes, disability is left out of that conversation," Weggemann says. "I want to do my part to empower and inspire the next generation."
If you've seen the documentary "Murderball," you know wheelchair rugby is not for the faint of heart. The 2005 documentary celebrates a sport played on the edge of mayhem: athletes crashing into one another, chairs toppling, bodies thrown to the floor.
The violence can be alarming for those unfamiliar with the game, though Chuck Aoki insists it's not as dangerous as it looks. "In Paralympic sports, so many people have suffered a traumatic injury," says Aoki, a member of the U.S. national team since 2009. "It's a natural instinct for people to tell us, 'Be careful. Be safe.' But when you go out and crash around, it feels like you're getting part of your life back."
Aoki played wheelchair basketball for 11 years before switching to rugby. The Minneapolis native has since become one of the best players in the world, with two Paralympic medals — silver in 2016 and bronze in 2012 — and a world championship in 2010.
The smashing and crashing drew him to the sport, but the attraction runs much deeper. Aoki, 30, said wheelchair rugby creates unique bonds among players, who knock the stuffing out of one another and then gather at the bar. The game's intensely physical nature also defies stereotypes.
"It's so combative, so hard-hitting," Aoki says. "I think that helps redefine for people what it is to have a disability. It changes it from something that limits someone, and it makes it simply part of who they are and what they do."
These Paralympics carry special meaning for Aoki. His paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Japan, and he is eager to experience a culture that shaped part of his family tree. He's also got a gold medal to chase.
At the 2016 Rio Games, the U.S. lost to Australia 59-58 in double overtime in the gold-medal match, widely considered one of the greatest games in the sport's history. Aoki, the U.S. captain, led the Americans with 21 goals.
With the Paralympics pushed from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic, he's had to wait five years for another chance. In a way, Aoki figures the timing couldn't be better. He believes the Tokyo Games could be a rallying point for a COVID-weary world in need of a lift.
"It's been such a tough year," Aoki says. "People are just itching for something inspirational. I'm hopeful that the Games can be a cathartic moment, showing us we can still come together and be part of something greater than ourselves."
The first thing she learned was how to walk again. Once Melissa Stockwell mastered that, she wanted to run, and swim, and ride a bike.
She wasn't sure what was possible after losing her left leg while deployed with the U.S. Army in Iraq. In adaptive sports, the former Eden Prairie resident found courage, confidence, purpose — and an unexpected new career. Stockwell, 41, is one of the most accomplished paratriathletes in the world, with three world championships and a Paralympic bronze medal.
The first Iraq war veteran to make the U.S. Paralympic team, Stockwell competed in swimming at the 2008 Beijing Games. After earning bronze in the first-ever Paralympic triathlon in 2016, she's aiming to return to the Games this summer in Tokyo.
"I always wanted to be an elite-level athlete," she says. "I dreamed of going to the Olympics as a gymnast when I was younger. The Paralympics is like getting a second chance. It's given me the opportunity to dream bigger than I ever thought, to have bigger goals than I ever thought possible."
A first lieutenant in the Army's transportation corps, Stockwell went to Iraq in 2004. She was injured a month into her deployment when her vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. The Eden Prairie High School graduate was the first American woman to lose a limb in active combat.
Swimming was part of her physical rehabilitation program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Stockwell loved how it felt to move through the water. When she learned about the Paralympics, she was determined to compete. Though she excelled as a swimmer, Stockwell wasn't content with only one sport; once she tried triathlon in 2009, she was hooked.
Stockwell says more wounded veterans are recognizing how adaptive sports can assist their healing and recovery. She was only 24 when her leg was amputated, and striving for the Paralympics kept her mind on her goals and abilities, not on what she had lost.
There's also a special pride that comes with competing for the nation she once volunteered to defend.
"I'm representing the same country, wearing a very different uniform," Stockwell says. "To wake up on race day and put on a uniform that says 'USA,' and to race for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, there's really no feeling like it."
At first, it was just for fun. Ian Seidenfeld started playing table tennis when he was 6 years old so he could hang out with his dad, Mitchell, one of the sport's all-time greats.
The stakes are much higher these days. The father and son from Lakeville eventually became coach and prodigy, as Mitchell molded Ian into a rising star. While Ian still has a ways to go to match his dad, who won four medals in three Paralympic Games, he will move another step closer when he makes his Paralympic debut this summer in Tokyo.
Mitchell Seidenfeld earned Paralympic gold in 1992 and is a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame. Ian's swift rise already is inviting comparisons between the two, which is just fine by him.
"Being compared to my dad, to be close to his level, would make me very happy," Seidenfeld says. "The Paralympics has always been a goal, and my dad has always been very supportive of me. But I didn't think it would happen this soon."
Like his father, Ian Seidenfeld, 20, has pseudoachondroplasia dwarfism. Both have had multiple surgeries to correct the joint problems common to that condition, and both have played through pain to reach the Paralympics.
Table tennis players typically peak in their 30s, so Seidenfeld didn't see himself making a serious run at the Paralympics until 2024. His timetable accelerated when he was a sophomore at Lakeville North High School. He won a pair of international tournaments, beating older, higher-ranked players — including a Paralympic champion. That stamped Seidenfeld as a contender for Tokyo, and he earned his spot through his performance at the 2019 Parapan American Games.
At the elite level, the game requires precise footwork, paddle control and the ability to impart different kinds of spin on the ball. Seidenfeld hones his technique by practicing three or four days per week at the Table Tennis Minnesota training center in South St. Paul. He's also a student at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, balancing a double major in finance and entrepreneurial management with training, travel and competition.
The Paralympics were postponed by a year because of the pandemic, a delay Seidenfeld used to his advantage. By getting extra time to work with his dad, he hopes to play more like him.
"I wasn't ready in 2020," he says. "I think I'm much more ready now. I never like to say I'm confident, but I'm going to do my best."
Rose Hollermann spent last winter in a warm and wonderful place, escaping Minnesota for a long stay in the Canary Islands. She didn't go to that vacation hot spot to lie on the beach.
The three-time Paralympian from Elysian, Minn., is among the top players for BSR ACE Gran Canaria in the Spanish Wheelchair Basketball League. Two seasons of pro ball — in a league that is 95% male — have sharpened Hollermann's game heading into this summer's Paralympics. The only woman on the Gran Canaria roster, she was her team's third-leading scorer in 2020 Champions League play.
The U.S. does not have any professional wheelchair basketball leagues. There were no pro leagues anywhere for women until Great Britain established one in April. That didn't deter Hollermann, 26, who has made a habit of blazing her own trail.
"I'm so grateful I get to play over here," Hollermann says. "I couldn't be in a better place leading up to Tokyo. And as a woman, it's really given me confidence in myself, feeling that type of equality."
In 2001, a car accident left Hollermann partially paralyzed below the waist. At Golden Valley's Courage Center, now Courage Kenny, she tried everything from swimming to sled hockey to tennis. She found her perfect match in basketball. At age 15, Hollermann became one of the youngest players ever named to the U.S. women's national team. A year later, she made her Paralympic debut at the 2012 London Games.
Hollermann helped the Americans to Paralympic gold in 2016, contributing 10 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in the championship game against Germany. She attended the University of Texas-Arlington on a full athletic scholarship, playing for a women's wheelchair team that won two national collegiate titles. Sports also molded her into an advocate.
As a sophomore on the track team at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School, Hollermann sued the Minnesota State High School League over its rules for wheelchair athletes in track and field. The suit led to changes, allowing single wheelchair racers to compete alongside able-bodied runners and counting wheelchair race results in team scores.
Playing basketball around the world has allowed Hollermann to introduce Paralympic sports to new audiences. She says working for an adaptive sports nonprofit would be her "perfect dream," though she plans to stay on the court as long as possible.
"When the public sees us competing, they see disabled people as strong and capable," Hollermann says. "They don't just see the wheelchair. That's a powerful thing."
As much as Josh Cinnamo relishes his triumphs, he also recognizes the value of his failures. In fact, the Lakeville athlete says, everything good about his Paralympic track and field journey started with a painful stumble.
A year after setting U.S. Paralympic records in the shot put, discus and javelin, Cinnamo was a favorite to qualify for the 2015 world championships and Parapan American Games. The qualifying meet was in St. Paul, and he expected a big performance in his home state. Instead, he came up short, missing the team by one spot.
"I was really angry that I didn't make it, even though I was doing really well," Cinnamo says. "But it takes a certain level of effort to be elite. I realized I didn't do enough work. And I promised myself that was never going to happen again."
He spent the next two years becoming as strong as possible. In 2017, Cinnamo broke the world record in the shot put for the F46 classification (upper limb impairment), igniting his push toward a world championship and the Tokyo Paralympics.
A married father of two, Cinnamo, 40, was born without a right forearm and hand. He competed in football and track at Luther College in Iowa, but the Paralympics were not on his radar until much later.
Looking for a way to get back into sports, Cinnamo attended a Paralympic talent evaluation camp in 2014. He had no idea what to expect, but before the year was done, he held three American records. Fueled by the disappointment of missing the 2015 world championships, he qualified for the next two, winning gold in the shot put in 2019.
Cinnamo says breaking the world record was a deeply emotional experience. Along with pride and satisfaction, he felt a new sense of who he was as an athlete and what he wanted to achieve.
"I couldn't ignore the fact that I was a disabled athlete anymore," he says. "Now that I was involved with the Paralympics, I needed to embrace it. I wanted to educate people about who we are."
Though Cinnamo said that remains his proudest athletic moment, he was just getting started. He has steadily bettered his world record, which now stands at 55 feet, 1 ½ inches. As a true believer in the Paralympic movement, he's also working to change perceptions of adaptive sports.
"We haven't done a very good job of advertising ourselves as elite athletes," he says. "We need to take ownership of that and show people what we can do."
More paralympians with Minnesota ties
- Lexi Shifflett, volleyball - As a setter for the U.S. women's sitting volleyball team, Shifflett has been keeping the American offense running smoothly for eight years. The Waseca native has gold medals from the 2016 Paralympics and two Parapan American Games, plus a pair of silvers from the 2014 and 2018 world championships.
- Josh Turek, wheelchair basketball - At age 42, Turek is trying to make his fourth Paralympics, five years after helping the U.S. team win its first Paralympic gold since 1988. A four-time All-American in wheelchair basketball at Southwest Minnesota State, he broke the Mustangs career scoring record with 4,024 points.
- Josie Aslakson, wheelchair basketball - While taking an archery lesson at Courage Kenny, Aslakson saw the wheelchair basketball team practicing. She hit the bull's-eye with her new sport. A member of the U.S. national team since 2017, she will make her Paralympics debut in Tokyo.
- Natalie Sims, swimming - The Edina native won three medals at the 2019 Parapan American Games, including gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
- Summer Schmit, swimming - At the 2019 world championships, the Grant native took gold in the 200-meter individual medley and silver in the 400 freestyle and 100 butterfly.