Eli Wolff is a former USA Paralympian soccer player and current Mentoring Coordinator at Partners for Youth with Disabilities based in Boston. He is also the co-director of the Sport and Society Fellowship programme at Brown University. I met Eli at the end of last year, after he delivered a thought provoking talk at Stellenbosch University, where he highlighted three fundamental concepts, strategic to my interest; Sport, Inclusivity, and Diversity. I was curious to know more, and arranged a coffee.
Eli is married to Cheri Blauwet, former Paralympian wheelchair racer and current head of the International Paralympic Medical Committee. After my coffee with Eli, I managed to sneak into the International Olympic Committee Conference: Advanced team physician course (OOPS!! I wanted to introduce myself as Dr Joseph, with a whisper, ‘not medical though’). Thanks Cheri, you delivered an excellent talk. It was the first time ever that the Paralympic representatives were Included in this course. Observing Eli’s relationship with Cheri is something I will cherish for the rest of my life…
Eli had a stroke when he was two years old, and was consequently classified as mild cerebral palsy (CP) within the Paralympic sphere. In short, Eli has limited mobility in his left arm and leg, leaving him with visible signs of CP. He, however, prefers stroke survivor instead of CP.
“Tying shoes and ties are challenging so I often find shoes and ties that are pre-set or I simply will ask for help. Sometimes people will open doors for me and that is nice even though I am really able to open doors on my own.”
Eli grew up in a house where academics were highly valued as both his parents are Harvard graduates. Nonetheless, he displayed a keen interest in sport from a young age. His parents never focused on his physical disability, instead they tried to establish an environment where he could just be a kid, make friends and play.
One afternoon, after playing an impressive soccer game for his high school, he was noticed by someone involved
with disability sports, who then helped him to get invited to a national Paralympic soccer training camp. Before then, he had never heard of sports for the disabled. The rest is history. Eli went on to compete in disability soccer for 10 years since 1995 and represented his country twice in 1996 and 2004 at the Paralympics. Unfortunately the team did not medal, but it was in Athens in 2004 when Eli scored his biggest goal in meeting Cheri. I played soccer for my primary school and we never won any of our games. Sadly, unlike Eli, I never scored any goals, neither on nor off the field.
This past Family Day or as celebrated in America, Patriots Day, Eli successfully completed the Boston Marathon at age 39. This was the first time he ran 42km’s. Now, I am once again motivated to continue pressing on towards my dream of running the Cape Town Marathon, thanks Eli. His wife on the other hand is a former Boston Marathon champion. She won the wheelchair race in 2004 and 2005.
“Having my wife Cheri greet me at the finish line was so amazing and very special.”
Eli joined the #RaceforRehab Team. The team ran to raise money for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and their adapted sports programmes. This is also the hospital where Cheri is employed.
“Most challenging was pushing through the leg cramps I had during the second half of the marathon and going a bit slower. Giving high fives to all of the kids holding their hands out along the course, and the energy in the final stretch running down Boylston Street to the finish line, kept me motivated.”
Apart from sport, Eli has been involved in various community activism initiatives. He was a co-leader of the community activism club in high school and volunteered at Special Olympics, among other activities. Parallel to the value placed by his parents on academics, was that of social consciousness and critical thinking, which led to Eli becoming more and more aware of the intricacies of sports for the disabled. The disparities between sports for the disabled and other sport in terms of support and infrastructure was hard to avoid.
“I became very reflective about my experiences. Apart from just playing the game, I always found myself questioning things.”
When Eli was a student at Brown University, he took a course on Sport and Society. The textbook used for the course encompassed the unpacking of discourses on race and gender issues relating to sport, but there were nothing about disabilities. This sparked an interest in research about sport and disability, as well as the need for advocacy in this area.
“I wanted to make a difference and add the missing chapter in that book.”
Since then, he went on to complete his MA in Sport Studies from the German Sport University of Cologne. In particular, he has been part of ground-breaking research and activism such as his involvement in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and working on Article 30.5 that addresses the right to sport, recreation, physical activity, physical education and play. He also helped to establish the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award (ESPY) for Best Male and Female Athlete with a Disability, and is speaking all around the world on the importance of Including disabilities to our debates on inclusivity and diversity.
I was honoured to be able to listen to one of these presentations. The most profound part of his talk was where he challenged the label of Paralympian, and the spirit of Olympism.
“but why then do we, those with disabilities, have a separate label and why are we not also called Olympians. Female athletes are not referred to as Femalympians, nor are athletes called out on the base of their race or religion, and rightly so. However, those with disabilities, they are not Olympians, they are Paralympians.”
I was startled, because I have never before been challenged in this regard. I was left perplexed. Why have I never critically observed this separation? The most common response would be that they need different facilities but as a matter of fact they use the same facilities just two weeks after the Olympic Games. Hence, there is more than enough scope for the two to be fully integrated.
“We are all Olympians, athletes reaching for the pinnacle of our sports.”
I was pondering on how we just choose to look beyond people with disabilities, as if they are invisible. I raised the issue with one of my friends and she commented, “To be honest, I do not want to see people with disabilities, because I feel guilty for not being able to do something about it. As a Christian I want to help them.” This left me thinking, maybe the real issue is with our view of perfection on earth, our perspective of what is right and what is ‘wrong’. It is this strange dichotomy of ignoring them as invisible or being overly focused on their difference and treating them with an ‘ag shame attitude’.
“To be so InVisible because you are so Included.”
When we continuously treat people with disabilities as if something terrible is wrong or as if they do not exist, then we are excluding them from society and we fail to see the valuable contributions that they can make to society.
“Many times Cheri’s patients mistake her for another patient, wondering if she is lost when she enters the room. Cheri then politely reply’s, ‘No, I am your doctor.’
Cheri is one of only a handful of doctors in the world who are wheelchair users. She is one of the finest physicians and highly qualified, graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.
For me, Leonard Cohen addresses the conflict between these opposing poles in such a beautiful illustrative way, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I suppose that not everything needs to be fixed, and you might miss the light if you ignore the crack. I do, however, acknowledge the complexity around wanting to help, and wanting to see people healed. Let love be the instigator of our noble intentions, and love does not discriminate or isolate. Love draws near, and it invites.
Eli had a big impact on my life. I was encouraged by the way he managed to combine his interests, Active sport lifestyle, Activism and Academics, A-plus for you, Eli. He challenged me on my perceived limitations, which I realised are only excuses, and he highlighted the importance on reflecting on our engagement with others.
So, I ask you, who are those people that you leave invisible, and what would it take to interact with those different then you, be it, gender, race or those with disabilities. The challenge is to “interact with people in order to form relationships” to look beyond your own world, own interest, and comfort zones.
Above all, it was his relationship with Cheri that had the biggest impact on me. In those few hours he showed me what a secure man looks like. Eli has a long list of accomplishments of his own, as a researcher, activist and professional athlete, yet, when we entered the conference he introduced himself as Cheri’s husband because that setting was her stage, and it was her moment to shine. His admiration for his wife and her abilities was astonishing. “Cheri can be president of the country if she wanted to be.” Eli had no problem being the president’s husband. He made sure his wife was visible, for her abilities as a physician, her leadership and of course her good looks.
Thank you Eli for making me more aware of the people around me. You demonstrated to me the importance of Including others and to not leave anyone Invisible.