Day 4 of Competition - Live from London

2 September 2012 - London’s normal rains came back today, slowing down the outdoor events. Paralympic athletes compete in the rain, of course, just as able-bodied athletes do. But sometimes conditions get slick or dangerous, and the very strict Paralympic competition timetables slip.

That happened this morning for wheelchair tennis. I went to see America’s Stephen Welch play a singles match against Belgium’s Joachim Gerard, and planned to stay to see Jon Rydberg and David Wagner in singles, too (against Michel Jeremiasz of France and Lucas Sithole of South Africa, respectively). But the rain slowed things down and I only managed the first.

Wheelchair tennis, if you haven’t watched it, feels exactly like the tennis you have seen. The server thoughtfully bounces the ball a few times, eying his opponent and planning his attack, then tosses up the ball and stretches the racket high to slam the ball across the net. The receiver paces the baseline like a tiger, back and forth, back and forth, before sprinting to meet the ball with outstretched racket. Umpires watch like hawks, shouting “OUT!” and ”FAULT!” in loud voices that echo on the court. Young men and women silently dart cross court to retrieve balls, then crouch motionless on the sidelines. The only difference is the ball can legally bounce twice (once in, once out of the lines) before the return.

Oh yes, and the players are in wheelchairs with that zip and spin and tilt and race on tilted wheels across the clay.

Later in the day I went to a sport that wasn’t familiar, a preliminary match of football 5-a-side, which is soccer played by visually impaired athletes. Athletes in the U.S. do play 5-a-side, but the U.S. doesn’t field a team.

So it was an amazing, surprising experience for me. These athletes really run hard – but lightly so they can hear the ball, which emits a faint jingle. They reach for each other, push opponents away hard, slam into each other defensively, kick the ball hard at the goalies. The goalies, who are the only sighted team members, scream directions from the box, as do coaches on the sidelines. And the audiences, which must be quiet during play, are clearly soccer mad and go completely wild when allowed to cheer.

Wish I’d had a better camera with me, but here’s an iPhone snap of the Islamic Republic of Iran (in green) playing Spain. Final results: Spain 2, Iran 1.

Judith Vecchione, for MEDAL QUEST

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