While training for the Tokyo Paralympics, my biggest win came in the dressing room

They say your 20s are for making mistakes. I hit the high mark at 21. Driving my candy pink Vespa with my arm in a cast, I thought of myself as a real-life Powerpuff Girl. The landing made me humble not everything is going well.

I was driving past my school, the University of Colorado, when a pedestrian crossed the street without looking. I pulled the only brake I could with my non-locking hand – the front brake. I flew over the wheel before I realized what was happening. My unfastened helmet comes in handy when it rolls across the road. I’m covered from head to toe in street burns intact, my clothes tattered. And the bits of asphalt strewn across my feet lifted them to new heights. But my left arm suffered the consequences of the collision that day. It becomes completely numb from the elbow to the fingertips.

I’m 27 now and I still haven’t gotten over that mistake.

Going from two fully functional arms to one meant I had to relearn everything I used to do with two hands. And as someone who gets lost sooner rather than asking for directions, I find it difficult to ask for assistance. Learning to tie my shoelaces with one hand was like a miracle. Tying my hair with one hand drives me crazy. For me, a trip to the hairdresser is less appealing than a tea party with Darth Vader. Suddenly I need help with my hair every day is unthinkable.

Then I met Anne, the new coach for my college swimming team. Anne has become my acquaintance to tie her hair. We never talked about it, and I never needed to ask. She just comes to untie my wristbands and tie my hair up, whether it’s at 5 a.m. in practice or in the middle of a busy meeting. Then I turned around and held my cap as she pulled it over my head. As long as Anne is practicing, I’m fine. And if it weren’t for her, I’d turn around and go home instead of turning to someone else.

This went on for two years. Each time, I feel bad about myself for failing what I felt was a test. But I hate needing help. Asking it leads to the question, “What’s wrong with your arm?” I don’t want to have to recount the worst day of my life every time I want to put my hair up. Worse are comments like “You’re so inspiring.” I just want to swim; in water I feel strong because it has removed the constraints of gravity. After the impact, that was the only place where I couldn’t feel the weight of my arm.

After graduating from college, I met Coach Alan through the Challenge Athletes Foundation. He’s the reason I started training for the Tokyo Paralympics. He saw me swimming and said to me, “You have to try, champion!”

I swam at my first Paralympic meeting just two months after we met, driving from Denver to the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center (OPTC) a day early to be classified. During the Paralympic Games, classification divides athletes into groups to compete with others with similar disabilities. Once you have your classification, you can swim to the Paralympics and set your aim as high – or low – as you like. I set the bar as high as I could and immediately started with Tokyo 2020 in sight.

This Paralympic meetup is unlike any other sporting event I’ve experienced. The Camaraderie reigns supreme, and trust among athletes is greater than even the fans. This atmosphere was in stark contrast to some of my previous competitive experiences, such as my senior year in college when I rushed into the locker room to avoid being bullied by my teammates. However, even OPTC’s more supportive environment didn’t prepare me for what came next.

In swimming, a racing suit is known as a tech suit, or second skin – and I often wish I had a second or even a third skin after I’ve finished wearing it. For tech suits, I like to go two or three sizes smaller than my usual size. And after at least 15 minutes of carefully inching into one of those knee-jerk clothes, I was covered in bruises. If I put on a tech suit without tearing it, the care is well worth it – underwater, the suit makes me feel like a dolphin. Otherwise, that’s $450 wasted. It took me a lot of practice and two ragged clothes, but during that first meeting at the Paralympics, I became very adept at pulling a suit with one hand.

Elimination is another story. I was stuck.

The clothes hung half of my body, not moving anymore. I felt trapped – a nude, semi-naked girl in a swimsuit. That’s my version of being lost in Jurassic Park, cold and vulnerable. And I was prepared to take the Swiss Army knife from my bag and cut it out of this expensive new suit if that meant I didn’t need to call for help.

A girl sitting on a bench near me, prosthetic legs beside her as she changed, saw me struggling. “Come here!” She said, hugging me with her knees to pull me closer. We both tugged at the suit in vain for a moment. Then she called for reinforcements. A blind swimmer ran up to me and managed to free me in less than a minute, deftly removing the clothes that resembled neatly rolled balls of yarn. After all, I don’t need the Swiss Army knife. That suit makes it to watch some other races.

At a Paralympic event, everyone had a disability, and it was strange for me to resist asking for help. I feel embarrassed that a call for help would be out of place. For the first time since flying off that scooter and hitting the sidewalk, I feel at home.

That locker room incident has become the new normal for me. And in the end, I also had to help. The day I can save someone from of them The stubborn suit makes me feel lucky to be part of such an exchange. It’s a unique reciprocity between people asking for help – that’s weird for most people, but pretty normal for anyone with a disability. “Can you give me your leg?” “Can you pull my suit off my arm?” “Cap me?” “Help me up?” “Can you tie my shoelaces?” “Only in a low ponytail, please!” Helping others and accepting help is a way of life in the Paralympics.

In the last meeting, I swam before the pandemic, I was on deck. Most people were in the pool. As usual, I need help with my hair and swimming cap. I looked over and saw one of the swimmers who won a medal in Rio. I absolutely adore her, and she makes me a little nervous. But she has two arms and is not in the pool yet.

“Can I do your hair for you, please?”

She started grabbing my hair and asking if she should leave or remove the “Made in China” sticker that must have been on my hair all morning. Once, such an encounter would have been painfully humiliating for me. But we just laughed it off – and I just thought about it for two minutes instead of two hours. She pulled her hood over my head, and I jumped in. This is the normal thing I’ve always wanted.

My time qualifies me for a test swim in my main event. But then the pandemic hit. It took a non-swimming quarantine for me to realize something I couldn’t have imagined before: I’d missed asking for help. Tying a hair tie while trying to use the couch to hold the hair in place while wrapping a bow around it is a lot harder.

I decided not to participate in the trials this year. In the end, that’s not the goal I thought I was aiming for. However, two and a half years of training in Tokyo was not in vain. It took me a long time in the Paralympic scene to understand that my award was not a medal to try to win at this year’s games. Learning to ask for what I needed was an adaptation that proved to be harder than tying a ponytail with one hand. And learning to do so is the victory that I didn’t initially aim for, but ultimately desired most. While training for the Tokyo Paralympics, my biggest win came in the dressing room

Bobby Allyn

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