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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games will feature 539 events in 22 sports. The opening ceremonies begin Tuesday and will be 10 days of elite competition.

More than a dozen Indigenous athletes are set to compete in the games.

History of the Paralympic Games

The father of the Paralympic Games is Sir Ludwig Guttmann who had the idea of developing a sport for WWII veterans. He had an immense amount of support because two years later the first organized competition in archery for wheelchair athletes was included in the 1948 London Olympic Games.

The first official Paralympic Games were in Rome in 1960 and featured eight sports.

The number of athletes participating in the summer Paralympic Games has increased from 400 athletes from 23 countries in Rome to 4,400 in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

(Related: Indigenous Olympians bring home the medals)

Team USA: Cheri Madsen

Cheri Madsen, a four-time Paralympian. (Photo courtesy of Cheri Madsen)

Cheri Madsen, 44, Omaha Tribe, will be continuing her legacy as one of the elite wheelchair racers in the world. She set three world records, winning two gold medals and one silver at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, and claiming silver at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

She has a goal of winning her third gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Watch: Cheri competing in the Women’s 400m T54 in London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.

“Representing the USA as an Omaha tribal member brings me pride and honor to my country and to the indigenous people and community,” said Madsen.

Overcoming challenges

“One of the biggest obstacles I face is that I train alone,” said Madsen.

Cheri’s coaches Wendy Gumbert and Saul Mendoza are based out of Wimberely, Texas. Cheri explained, “We communicate weekly with training logs and we talk often. Training through the pandemic we started having Zoom roller sessions three times a week, which we had never done in the past. I believe this has helped tremendously.”

Cheri had a two week training camp with her coaches in Texas prior to leaving for Tokyo. This provided some fine-tuning and tough workouts.

Advice for young student-athletes

Cheri has advice for young student-athletes. She said, “I have two daughters, Reese, 18 and Malayna, 15. Both are three-sport student-athletes. My first advice to them is to have fun. Next, I ask them to set goals, mainly small ones, something they can achieve, in a short amount of time. I also ask them to set a big goal and something they need to put in extra work in to succeed. And, along this process, when they get frustrated or discouraged we discuss the areas in where they can improve and how they can work on them.”

Supporters along the Journey

“We are proud of Cheri's hard work and determination as she travels a great distance to not only represent the USA but also our Omaha Nation,” said Everett Baxter Jr., chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.

"We pray to Wakonda, our Creator, to watch over and bless Cheri as she travels to and from Tokyo. May the blessings of Wakonda and the strength of our people help aid her in the journey for the gold medal. No matter the outcome, our people are proud of you,” Baxter said.

“One of my mentors is Scout Bassett,” said Madsen. “She has always been supportive and gives the best advice. She is a role model to youth athletes and a CAF ambassador. Her social media content is so uplifting and inspiring.”

“First and foremost, I think the world of Cheri,” said Bassett. “It's a bit ironic that she said I've been a mentor to her because the same could be said about her. She's been a huge mentor and inspiration to me over the years. I've known Cheri since I started Paralympic track and field in 2013. She is a veteran in the sport and when I was new to the Paralympic space, she befriended me and began to teach me a lot about the Paralympic movement and history and how things work in our sport.”

“Cheri's athletic achievements and talents are evident for all to see, but I most admire her strength and resilience to keep going. She's navigated many personal hardships and challenges in her life - challenges that would deter most people, but she's continued to fight and stay persistent towards her goals and she's excelled!”

“To have a career that spans decades and to be so consistently good at such a high level for so long, that is the stuff that legends are made of and she's undoubtedly one of them. It's been a true joy to see her be a phenomenal mom with her girls, all while training and competing at an elite level, it further proves women really can do and have it all. I'm thankful I've gotten to share this journey with her and I've absolutely loved seeing her shine! I have no doubt she will crush it in Tokyo!”

Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, and gold medalist, is a mentor to Madsen. She recalled, “I met Billy back in 2000 before the Sydney Olympic and Paralympic games. At the time, I was sponsored by the Native American Sport Council and he was involved in the program. We had many conversations about his Olympic experience and he gave me words of encouragement and praises for all my hard work and success. I will always cherish the time spent with Billy and his wife Pat Mills.”

Mills recently talked about Madsen. “We had two lndian athletes on the team, including Todd Reich and Cheri Becerra. Todd was in the javelin and was a Fresno State NCAA champion. Cheri was in the 800 meters and was a bronze medalist. After, she competed in the 800 meter wheelchair division then two weeks later she competed in the Paralympics.”

Mills said Madsen was an awesome, focused and an intelligent competitor. He recounted a race he witnessed: “She was bumped coming off the final curve and may have cost her a second place. She set a world record in the 400 meters. In the Sydney Olympics, she started too fast in the first 200 meters, slowed, then lost momentum and got in a traffic jam and was not able to close but matched everyone’s final drive.”

“As the athletes left the track they all came by my seat in the second row from the track,” recalled Mills. “Cheri looked at me and said she was sorry. I think l applauded her. I was so proud of her as an incredible person and an athlete that tears began to flow. I knew she knew on a given day she could beat anyone in the world, and she has. She said she has her arms, you have your legs.”

“She is one of my hero’s,” Mills said.

Madsen was recently featured on a News Chat produced by One Revolution. Click here for the episode:

Kaleo Kanahele MaClay. (Photo courtesy of USA Volleyball)

Team USA: Kaleo Kanahele MaClay

Kaleo Kanahele MaClay, 25, may be one of the best sitting volleyball athletes in the world.

Sitting volleyball is almost identical to standing volleyball, but it’s played on a smaller court and with a lower net, and every player has a disability.

Tokyo will be her third Paralympic Games and Team USA is the defending gold medalist. She is also planning to compete in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games.

Kanahele MaClay told Hawaii News Now, “The gold medal was the biggest goal in my whole life. After we won, it was like, ‘What’s your next goal? What else do you want to do?’”

“I think with the pandemic, I actually got time to rest, and time to remember why I love volleyball,” she told Hawaii News Now.

Kanahele MaClay wears her maiden name “Kanahele” on her jersey, a nod to her Hawaiian heritage. In sitting volleyball, she’s a giant on the court.

Paralympians, as Olympians and all elite athletes, have many roles in their life in and out of their competition arenas. She was featured on the “A Winning Mindset: Lessons from the Paralympic Games.” Click here for the podcast episode

She recently told Healthyish on the Bon Appétit U.S. website, as she was discussing her coffee and cookie shop in Oklahoma City: “My mom raised me as though I didn’t have a disability,” she says. “I was born with a club foot and had surgery at eight months, but she didn’t want the focus to be on my limitations. So I grew up doing ballet, gymnastics, basketball, softball, volleyball—all the things.”

According to Kanahele MaClay’s profile, she had a tenotomy at nine months old with pins placed through the toe and heel bones. She had limited calf flexibility and muscle.

Kanahele MaClay played standing volleyball at nine years old and began training with the U.S. Paralympic Sitting Volleyball team at 12.

She competed in the 2017 World ParaVolley World Super 6 while pregnant. Her and husband Matt Maclay, married in 2016, have a son named Duke.

Click here for Kaleo Kanahele Maclay’s Team USA profile.

Refugee Paralympic Team: Abbas Karimi

Abbas Karimi, 24, will be representing Afghanistan the people but not the team when he competes in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Karimi is on the swim team of the Refugee Paralympic Team.

Abbas Karimi. (Photo courtesy of Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Karimi will also be representing his Hazara tribe in his native country. According to Aljareera, the Hazaras are descendants of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire.

Karimi will be flying to Tokyo from his Florida home. As his country is in turmoil, few people are flying out of the country.

In a recent story about Karimi at Amplitude, the writer said: “Karimi has a congenital disability, having been born without arms. He faced relentless bullying during childhood and took up kickboxing as a means to defend himself and channel his anger. At age 13 he took up swimming, and he immediately excelled at it. By his mid-teens he was a national champion in the sport.”

Karimi’s first competition as a swimmer resulted in a national championship. In the Mexico 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, he earned a silver medal in the S5 50m butterfly race.

He will be competing in the 50m butterfly and three days later in the 50m backstroke.

In a story with the International Paralympic Committee on his incredible journey to this day, Karimi said: “When I make the podium, I’m going to make a lot of refugees around the world happy. For me, I’ll feel like I’m a lion, someone who always fights hard and never gives up no matter what.”

Team Australia: Amanda Reid

Team Australia Paralympian Amanda Reid

Amanda Reid, 24, is a Wemba Wemba and Guring-gai woman and a two-time Paralympian. She has Cerebral Palsy.

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Starting her career in the pool at age 14, Reid won seven gold medals at the 2011 Global Games. In 2012 at the London Paralympics, she placed fifth in the 100m breaststroke.

In 2015, she broke the national C2 Individual Time Trial record at the NSW Para-cycling Championships.

In 2016, Reid smashed the national record in the 3km individual pursuit at the Australian Para-cycling Championships and in the same year, won a silver medal in the 500m time trial combined classification C1-C2-C3 at the Rio Paralympic Games.

Click on Amanda Reid’s Team Australia profile.

Team Australia: Ruby Storm

Ruby Storm, 17, is from the Wiradjuri tribe in Deniliquin, NSW. She has an intellectual impairment.

Ruby Storm is one of a generation of S14 swimmers in Australia who earned a bronze medal in the mixed 4x100m freestyle S14 at the 2019 World Para-swimming Championships. (Photo courtesy of Paralympics Australia)

Storm earned a bronze medal in the mixed 4x100 freestyle S14 at the 2019 World Para-swimming championships.

At the World Championships, Ruby also competed in the mixed freestyle relay, and the women’s 100m butterfly S14, 100m breaststroke SB14, 200m freestyle S14 and 200m individual medley SM14. She also placed fifth in the fly final.

Storm doesn’t believe in focusing on one international event a year. She also won a pair of bronze medals in February at the 2020 World Para-swimming World Series in Melbourne, VIC. In the women’s 50m butterfly, Ruby finished just six points behind nine-time Paralympic champion Sophie Pascoe of Team NZ.

She dreams of winning a Paralympic medal, and time will come soon to see where she is.

Click on Ruby Storm’s Team Australia profile.

Team Australia: Samantha Schmidt

In 2018, Samantha Schmidt, 19, was a national champion for open women in the para discus and javelin. Her impairment is Cerebral Palsy. She will be competing in the discus throw during the 2020 Paralympic Summer Games.

At the 2021 Sydney Track Classic, Samantha threw a 33.66m to set a new personal best and Oceanian F38 record, securing her spot on the Australian Tokyo 2020 Team.

The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games will be her first time representing her country at an international level.

Schmidt is a proud Wakawaka and Gubbi Gubbi Indigenous woman. Schmidt’s descent is via her grandmother who is a member of the Stolen Generations. Her mother’s side all identify as Indigenous and within the Bundaberg community.

Click on Schmidt’s Team Australia profile

Team New Zealand: Hayden Barton Cootes

Hayden Barton-Cootes has been involved with the Wheel Blacks since 2015, where he made his debut against Australia. He loves the physicality of Wheelchair rugby and traveling around the world meeting awesome people along the way. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

Hayden Barton Cootes, 27, is Māori and will compete for Team New Zealand in the Wheel Blacks. According to his profile in the NZ Paralympic Team media guide, he loves the physicality of Wheelchair rugby and traveling around the world. His impairment is a spinal cord injury.

Hayden played in the Australian (South Australian Sharks) and Japanese (Tokyo Suns) domestic competition and experienced Japanese culture at the same time. He also plays wheelchair basketball for the Auckland team.

Hayden is working towards a sports science degree.

Team New Zealand: Holly Robinson

Holly Robinson, Team New Zealand. Holly Robinson was selected in a Para Athletics Talent Identification program at age 10 and two years later, after competing in her first overseas competition, she decided to focus on Para athletics. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

According to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide, Holly Robinson, 26, is Māori and began playing rugby in her hometown of Hokitika when she was four years old. She started participating in athletics three years later.

At age 10, Robinson was selected in a Para Athletics Talent Identification program and after competing in her first overseas competition she decided to focus on para athletics. Her impairment is limb deficiency.

In 2011, Robinson accepted a scholarship to train under Para athletics coach Raylene Bates. Robinson competed for the New Zealand team in the 2012 London Paralympic Games, where she placed seventh in the Javelin F46.

She won silver in the javelin F46 at the 2013 World Para Athletics Championships, and won a bronze in the Javelin F46 at the 2015 World Para Athletics Championships.

Selected to represent New Zealand at her second Paralympic Games in 2016, Robinson was named flag bearer for the opening ceremony, and went on to win silver in the Javelin F46. Her silver medal finishes continued at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships, 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and 2019 World Para Athletics Championships.

In March 2021, Robinson became the first Para athlete to win a medal in an open event at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships, taking silver in the women’s javelin.

Robinson loves the thrill of competition and her ultimate goal is to be the best in the world.

She completed a physical activity, health and wellness. degree at the Otago Institute of Sport and Adventure in 2015.

Team New Zealand: Lisa Adams

Lisa Adams, Team New Zealand. In February 2018, Lisa Adams became the first woman in the world to play Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) nines on the world stage, at the Rugby League Commonwealth Championships with the New Zealand men's squad. They finished second and she was also selected to be the New Zealand flag bearer. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

Lisa Adams, 31, is the world record holder in the Shot Put F37. Adams has Cerebral Palsy. Her current coach is her older sister and one of the world’s elite shot put throwers, Dame Valerie Adams. Lisa and Dame Valerie’s Indigenous roots are from Tonga, a country in Oceania with more than 170 South Pacific islands.

In February 2018, Adams became the first woman in the world to play Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) nines on the world stage, at the Rugby League Commonwealth Championships with the New Zealand men's squad. They finished second and she was also selected to be the New Zealand flag bearer, according to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide.

Adams began competing in Para athletics later that year, after an article about her playing rugby was spotted by Athletics New Zealand coach Raylene Bates. A few months later, she attended a classification event in Hastings and was encouraged to try shot put and discus.

Adams’ potential was obvious from her first throw, and at her first major competition just months later, She won the national Para shot put title. A year later at the 2019 NZ Track & Field Championships, Adams broke the F37 shot put world record for the first time.

Just 18 months after first picking up a shot, Adams was selected in the New Zealand team for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. In the F37 shot put competition, Adams broke her own world record three times and came away with the gold medal.

Adams is motivated by her son Hikairo, and her desire to show him that he too can give something a go and work hard to achieve his goals.

Adams commutes between Auckland - training at AUT Millennium - and her home in Rotorua, where her old school, Rotorua Lakes High, has installed a shot put stop board for her training.

Team New Zealand: Ben Tuimaseve

Ben Tuimaseve made his international Para athletics debut at the Oceania Athletics Championships in Townsville, Australia in June 2019. He was then selected to represent New Zealand at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November 2019, where he placed 12th in the shot put F37. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

Ben Tuimaseve, 32, is Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island, and first picked up a shot put in late 2016, according to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide. At the time he had a desire to do something for himself and see if he had potential to make it to the top.

Three years later in 2019, Tuimaseve made his international Para athletics debut at the Oceania Athletics Championships in Townsville, Australia. He was then selected to represent New Zealand at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, where he placed 12th in the shot put F37.

On his return to New Zealand, Tuimaseve underwent surgery on his ankle, which left him unable to compete in the 2020 summer season. The delay to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games was a lifeline to the South Auckland-based shot putter, giving him additional time to recover and resume his training.

Tuimaseve fought his way back into impressive form in 2021, producing successive national record-breaking performances over the summer season.

Outside of Para athletics, he competed in the Physical Disability Rugby League New Zealand (PDRL) competition and represented New Zealand in PDRL at the 2018 Rugby League Emerging Nations World Championships in Australia.

Team New Zealand: Tainafi Lefono

While playing rugby in 2007 a tackle went wrong and Tainafi Lefono sustained a spinal cord injury that left him a C7 tetraplegic. Nafi is a fully qualified Physiotherapist and is currently working in the community as a neuro physiotherapist (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

Tainafi Lefono, 36, Samoan, was playing rugby in 2007, and a tackle went wrong and he sustained a spinal cord injury that left him a C7 tetraplegic, according to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide.

Nafi, as he prefers to be called, is a fully qualified physiotherapist and is currently working in the community as a neuro-physiotherapist. He is working with a variety of individuals to enable them to be more independent in their day-to-day lives.

In 2020, Nafi became a dad for the first time and loves having whanau time with his partner and daughter.

Team New Zealand: Barney Koneferenisi

Barney Koneferenisi, 27, Samoan, was first introduced to Wheelchair rugby, according to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide. He went to his first practice and fell in love with the sport.

According to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide, Koneferenisi said “Wheelchair rugby has been part of my life for such a long time now. I had originally decided not to aim for selection for Tokyo as I was focused on starting my own business, a ride share app for marginalized groups such as disabled people, women and people with pets.”

“I was fortunate to have this opportunity and to now be part of the New Zealand Paralympic Team to compete in Tokyo for my country,” added Koneferenisi.

Team New Zealand: Tupou Neiufi

Tupou Neiufi, Team New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

Tupou Neiufi, 20, Tongan, was first identified by Paralympics New Zealand in 2011 as part of a Paralympics New Zealand Para Swimming Talent Identification program, according to the NZ Paralympic Team media guide. She was then quickly selected by High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) to their ‘Pathway to Podium’ program.

At only 15 years of age, Neiufi made her debut for Team NZ in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. She placed seventh in the Women’s 100m Backstroke S9.

Most recently, Neiufi competed at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and for the first time competing in front of huge audiences she placed 6th in the Women’s 100m Backstroke S9.

She is also a silver medalist in the 100m backstroke S8 at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships Silver.

Neiufi was hit by a speeding car when she was just two years old, which resulted in a left-sided hemiplegia, and paralysis on the left side of her body. 

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