My tokyo shaped scar
(I put a “too long didn’t read” break if you want to get through some of the numbers and intracacies of team selection and just want the essence of the story. Just scroll down below and look for my TLDR break)
I am working with my friend at his start up right now. We help freelancers with structure, accountability, productivity, and performance. He is a former pro basketball plaer so he has been able to ride the waves of emotions and competitions with me this summer. For that, I am grateful. It’s called The Process – you can check it out here. One of our members was going over some of his own growth and work productivity and he said, “don’t write when you’re bleeding – write from your scars.” That was exactly what I needed to hear, and perhaps fully heal before I found a good way to talk about Tokyo and what happened with my role – now missing – at the 2021 Paralympic Games.
I have competed at a Paralympic Games. Just barely, though. Both the Olympic and Paralympic teams for Russia were denied a chance to compete in 2016 due to state sponsored doping. Well, not due to the doping more due to the outrage of the doping. At trials 2016, I knew I had not performed well. I had given every part of me to the sport – long jump in particular – and fell flat the day that it counted. I decided to run away. Booked tickets to exotic places to escape any reminder of what I was missing.
Then I got a call. Because Russia was no longer competing – our team was afforded more slots to compete at the Paralympic Games. Of course, I agreed to go, “the important thing is not to win, but to take part,” as Pierre de Coubertin so famously said. I didn’t love how I performed at my first Games, I made finals which was good, but I made a promise to myself for the next quad – my story would be different. After that experience, who I became as an athlete was completely different. I learned to enjoy the training and fall in love with the technical aspects of my event. I crossed a threshold of good to great – proven by my promotion to the US National Team. Besides random team gear and an strikingly modest stipend, we got great benefits like health insurance. And as any adult in the United States knows, is expensive even BEFORE having any extensive medical history.
I felt like my hard work and results were finally validated. I was going to be one of those athletes you saw in the commercials, next to the new cars. The year I made the National Team – I wasn’t selected to World Championships. I was hurt, but I understood how the scoring system worked at a team selection meet. In the US, Para track and field at one point decided to have a trials-style track meet where your mark at only one meet counted. Which, on the surface seems fair. We have a drop-down percentage system where your mark compared to everyone else of your gender is put into consideration compared to the top 3rd mark in the world of your disability class. If your class does worse than it did the year prior – the standard will be averaged so that it doesn’t “get easier,” in any progressive year. I hope I didn’t lose you there. Basically, you need a high percentage to show likelihood of you finishing on the podium for the US. To make a National Team, you essentially need to have a PB (personal best) every year. All of this is completely objective and on paper makes total sense. The numbers don’t lie. I should have gone to London 2017. I watched girls in my class, who I regularly beat win medals with marks I easily surpassed. That hurt me deeply.
If we have learned anything since 2020 – it is my greatest hope that ewe collectively understand quality and equity are not the same thing. Para does a great job in an attempt to consider this within disability class. I have spent a lot of my young life and way too much effort avoiding classes like advanced math and physics just to learn it in application in track and field.
The percentage system is not equitable as it is compared to all events. This also means that some athletes in different classes can be omitted all together if no one scores high enough. A higher affected long jumper will have a smaller A-standard than a lower affected 400m runner. This is the simplest example I’ve been able to use to explain our system.
My A-standard for 2020 was 4.44 meters, that is my 100% number. Let’s say another woman in another disability class is a 400m runner and her standard is 60 seconds – that’s her 100%. Anyone that runs and finishes a 400m is a hero in my book because that is one hard event. She could run 62 seconds and score 96.7%. 2 seconds in a race like that is an eternity. It can range depending on speed but when 1st-3rd in a sprint is typically in the span of half of a second – 4 times that is a long time. For me, 4.29 meters is 96.7% While 15 cm could be a significant distance, it’s roughly the length of my smartphone.
This drop-down system makes some events, like short sprints, shorter throws and jumps much more difficult to hit high numbers without basically already being third best in the world. Because this is fairly known, there is also discretionary selection. In hindsight this is almost laughable – because logically why would there be any discretion if we are objectively choosing the team? Or why even do this objective selection when it is known who is good and competitive in their own class?
For Tokyo – things were different. After missing out on London, my training group decided to dissolve our jumps and multi crew. We were a mix of disabled and non-disabled elite athletes that essentially had no place to go. I decided to move to Texas from Phoenix to chase after a few professional opportunities as well as be close to the coach that wrote my programming but essentially train on my own. I had matured in the sport, so it wasn’t a bad temporary solution. Turns out, most of us are terrible at coaching ourselves. I had to hit my standard twice that year as my sporting organization had a leadership transition and things like – sanctioned meets, dates and paperwork were improperly filled out at their training facility, so I had to do more track meets in that off year to secure my National Team status and more importantly – my health insurance.
2019, things started falling apart fast for me. I needed a new prosthetic since I was training on one that was 6 years and 15 pounds ago. I had never had my leg made by anyone than the man who got me through a Division I athletic career and my first Games. I had worked in the prosthetic industry throughout my sporting career. Because I was successful in my physical endeavors, I had repeatedly heard I would be an “easy fit.” My experience getting a prosthetic with a new 3-D printing system proved otherwise. It wouldn’t stay on; I couldn’t put good force through the ground and after 20 years of being an amputee my skin would turn purple and become inflamed with boils. Painful and definitely not cute at all.
I lost my National Team status that year. I lost a gold medal at Para Pan American championships, and I didn’t make finals at World Championships. Of course, I can’t only blame my equipment. I lost my confidence as an athlete. I had no one helping me in training and my approach work all fell apart. It was time to go back to what worked. I moved home, I didn’t want to work with my dad, but he has extensive and successful coaching experience. Coming home felt like I failed. Like I wasn’t “good enough” to do it on my own. Which, of course, is a complete charade. No athlete, elite or otherwise are successful on their own. Between recovery, facilities, equipment, and talent it’s statistically impossible to do it alone.
After the onset of COVID, we lost facilities. This isn’t unique to me, but a hurdle, nonetheless. I lost my prosthetic sponsorship – not due to bad performances but due to their marketing schedule. After 2020 they were phasing out athletes.
I am so blessed to be so supported back in Colorado. My prosthetic clinician shaved my old blades down so I could jump on them better than how they were originally manufactured. I have a leg that fits – really well. I have access to facilities and a great rehab team. Most of all, I have coaching coupled with programming that helped me make up – and surpass – years of loss in performance.
I promised our director of para track and field I would get back on the National Squad if she let me keep my insurance to get that prosthetic. I came through on my deal this year – even with a standard so high very few women have been able to hit them this year. I am the best jumper I have ever been – and 5th best all time – in the world.
Trials was not my best meet. Most people did not do well on the runway we were provided. In 2017, we weren’t given an official board but rather white tape down on the track. This year, a runway where some people had to shorten their approach. My event for some reason is always the first event of the meet and with that comes kinks like, the officials getting the call room sorted. The officials that couldn’t remember where I jumped from off of the board because they hadn’t been asked that yet. Small things, that lead to big stress. At our long jump event, we had combined classes because we had some TV coverage – which I thought was cool!
But it was an accumulation of stress. People were mad that we were not afforded support with fans yet the non-disabled athletes were. Why were we at a high school track and the USATF guys got Eugene? None of this mattered to me because I just wanted to jump. I felt a big one was close and if I was lucky it could happen at trials. After a few jumps, an interruption with the anthem (which skipped and started over the speakers in a perfect and comedic fashion) It felt like a battlefield out there, girls were sobbing, and we were losing the war. I refused. I have done this long enough to know how to take the power back. Even if you’re in a storm you can become the storm and use it.
The conditions weren’t great, but I won trials. By a lot, almost over a meter from the next girl in my class. But the number I got I knew might be low. It wasn’t my best meet and our team events rarely produce a good environment for breakthrough performances. I could have been stronger mentally – but that was the strongest I had ever been in a meet like that. The unfortunate thing was – no one even knew our team size at that time. We hadn’t been given our final slots, but I knew as it stood, I wasn’t quite as secure as I wanted. I passed my USADA test, and the waiting began. We had to wait about a week before we knew who made it.
The day before team selection – an email arrived. We got 6 more female slots. 26 in total. I felt relief. Everyone had running spreadsheets of percentages, and each one had me around number 24. I was so excited to fight for a medal at Tokyo.
The day came. In an attempt at making the announcement as ceremonial as it had been years passed, we were asked to keep our cameras on for the giant Zoom call. Our team director starts listing women’s names, in alphabetical order by first name. We start getting closer to my name…
God himself had come down to refrain me from turning myself off mute to say, “Hey you forgot the L names!”
I stayed through every name in case she had realized she missed my name. As soon as gravity came back into my brain, I ended the call.
I write in a text message, “I am just confused as to what number I was?”
“Lacey, you were number 27.”
Unlucky. I am told with COVID, there was potential that the IPC could release more slots and, in any case, even if someone were to get hurt – I would be next in line.
“So, you’re telling me there’s a chance!” I was channeling my inner Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber in his optimism and cluelessness and kept training. Of course I had to go, I was the best long jumper, by a lot in my category. I could get a medal! It would happen I could feel it.
I knew waiting would be hard – I can confidently say it was harder than I anticipated. The amount of interviews and speeches I had to give while carrying the weight of uncertainty was heavy. Watching other countries announce their teams during this athlete purgatory. Girls I competed against I knew I could beat. I was blessed to meet a young guy who lived close to me that ran at trials who was a collegiate athlete. We decided to train together and it was truly a saving grace for my sanity and sadness each day I dragged myself to the track.
I got my official team alternate email. Filled out the paperwork, started getting the team COVID tracking app and even their at-home tests sent to my house. Emails that seemed promising including a marketing waiver that I thought was “the email,” until I was corrected by being told IPC started reaching deadlines before the one the US team gave us for alternates to know our status.
Over a week before that vague date they gave us, I see on social media, where all of us seem to get our information now that there was a “final list.” They had added two more guys – no additional girls to the team.
I write our director of sport to make sure they use the word “final” the same way that I use the word “final.” It was earlier than they told us, but it was pretty clear that the team was final. Those additional slots came directly from IPC to those specific individuals for “event viability.” Basically, their event had low numbers, so they needed to fill the lanes in order to keep the race viable at the Games – it didn’t matter if they were ranked 12th or 20th they were able to receive a direct invitation.
That was when I decided to fight. Not because I had anything against that – I love disabled sport and support the growth of this community. And I had nothing against the athletes going. But I knew, being ranked 5th in the world that surely it was an oversight if they were sending other numbers and I was entitled to compete at the games. I was the literal next person! I was the only person on our National Team not going! They had to send me!
I did something I’ve never done – a last ditch social media video complete with crying. I was desperate. I didn’t know how to get a hold of who I needed to get ahold of. I wasn’t given much direction from my immediate powers that be except that IPC could only give out slots now and USOPC couldn’t ask for a slot for one athlete in particular otherwise they would have to do it for every athlete on the list.
I hate bad PR and attacking anyone online. I think it’s tacky and all it looks like is you’re complaining. Life isn’t fair – this is something I know too well.
I hated that I did that, but my video at least got the attention of enough people that I got better emails than they ones casually thrown on these respective websites.
I was talking with people, it started to feel like I had hope. I had a bunch of non-answers, emails that had been directly copied and pasted from questions I didn’t ask. I started to feel panic. I was being told this isn’t “sitting well” with certain people at the higher levels in charge.
Sitting well?! Hope was a weak strategy at this point, and I couldn’t just sit back and let everything I had worked for – and sacrificed – go down without a fight.
The other day, I was sitting on my outdoor sofa in my back yard. It’s a peaceful space. I am truly grateful for the beautiful life I have worked hard enough to be able to afford – and only with and by those in my life who support me. I was reading and erupted into laughter. It wasn’t the feeling of losing my mind like I had felt earlier this month, like during my video. No, not maniacally laughing. I was just laughing was from funny a story I remembered with my dad that reminded me of the same reason why I did what I did.
Sometime in 2020, my dad called me really fired up about something.
“Lacey, me and a bunch of other guys are going to the capital to protest.”
Protests were happening at the Denver capital building almost daily at this point and I was impressed at his sudden interest to express his civil duties.
“Oh!? What are you protesting?”
“Mayor Hancock wrote some proposal to replace Columbus Day with Mother Cabrini Day.”
Sarcastically I go, “Oh no! Mother Cabrini? Not a woman!”
He didn’t catch my joke, “can you believe it?! Mother Cabrini Day? Yeah, well, we are going to protest as it is an infringement on our identities as Italian Americans.”
I didn’t have the availability – either by timeframe or emotional capacity to fight with him about how problematic Columbus is for our country. I couldn’t seriously support his counter-protest to a good cause. I took a breath and asked him a question – “Dad, have you thought about the outcome of this protest not ending the way that you want it to?”
“Lacey, there is no way – Mother Cabrini Day?! Come on!”
“Okay Dad, I just want you to consider the outcome just in case this doesn’t go your way.”
That was an impossible scenario in his then 74-year-old-Italian-American mind.
Let me just say, I was proud to celebrate my Italian heritage last October with the inaugural Mother Cabrini Day on the 21st in Denver.
While I do not need to go into some of the unspeakable atrocities that Columbus committed that my dad has decided to ignore. Columbus was like, on loan to Spain because even Italy, his own motherland, was like “eh, he sucks” – my dad’s protest and mine are similar in that they are fights for something greater.
As each day passes – my father recognizes this world less and less. I truly believe we are moving in a positive progressive direction – but that still must be scary to experience when the security you’ve known all your life is being threatened. When you feel that your identity is being threatened and removed by someone else.
Being a professional athlete, you dedicate your life to your craft. We move, a lot. We found training groups, then would have to find new ones if they dissolved or decided they only wanted to work with one particular group.
I made the numbers required of me. At trials, no one knew our team size, so no one knew what was actually required at the time. I agreed to the selection criteria – for both Tokyo and the National Team. I achieved everything I said I would, and honored my side of the agreement as an athlete within an organization.
Because of how the powers that be chose our selection criteria – I was unintentionally betrayed. It is pretty unfair to hold an objective team trials when the actual team size is unknown. To even call it objective when there are still discretionary slots and all the language in these official documents “may but are not required to” and “subject to change.” Who, besides the athletes left behind, can be held accountable?
The responses I received from the powers that be made me feel small, silly and stupid. I was embarrassed and encouraged to stop, to be quiet, to be complacent. But I thought of the people I have mentored and known for so long – and how I would have easily fought for them. I had to give the same love and fierceness to myself that I would give anyone I cared about.
I saw behind the curtain in the past months and was deflated to find that the athletes’ performances or even wellbeing are not always the top priority of the organizations to which we subscribe. That was a big bummer. We are merely pennies among higher priorities like corporate, multi-national sponsorships and agreements. The costs for top athletes to go, and even do well on our own is pocket change in the grand scheme of things.
Consequently, it’s the athletes who pay. The feelings of resentment still linger, because even though I suffered a betrayal – if I had not put up a fight, the greater betrayal would have been to myself.
How dare any of us, especially in the disabled community call ourselves “advocates” if we do not have the courage to stand up to something systemically flawed? That is how the Americans with Disabilities act even came to be. Our civil rights have been born of fighting for ourselves and it would have been wrong to ever show my face or my words in a public sphere without honoring the work done before us and that which we still do. I have a humble public following, and it would have felt insincere to continue as if I agreed with what happened in regard to the Tokyo selection. When it happens to the next athletes, are we all intended to stay silent? Imagine during Title IX if the women had just been happy to be allowed to play sport instead of fighting for better facilities, equipment, and treatment over all? Would women’s sports even have evolved if there wasn’t a fight?
I love disabled sport and I support the development of it to an elite domain, but when you love something – and I mean really love it – you hold it accountable and encourage it to improve. You want to see it get better. If we do that work on ourselves to become better every day than we should expect and hold these organizations to the same high standards regularly. A continual effort to reach our best potential is a true act of love.
I love the Olympic and Paralympic movement. As a former director of sport recently alluded to – these athletes show that no matter what, they have chosen to bet on themselves. That’s what makes these events so incredible. A world record breaking performance is great but the spirit of someone who truly believes in themselves is what creates global movements. Shit, look at how much noise Columbus did by believing in himself! We can’t go back and fix the past. But we can correct our course and aim for something better. We do better because we love what the movement can be.