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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Some are missing limbs. Others are blind or in wheelchairs.

But they are world-class athletes, say U.S. Paralympians on Okinawa preparing for the upcoming Paralympic Games, set to start Sept. 6 in Beijing.

The U.S. Paralympic swim and track teams, 82 athletes in all, have been training at Kadena Air Base and Camp Foster since Sunday and are scheduled to head for China on Tuesday.

The Paralympics, which fall under the International Olympic Committee purview, are serious "elite sports," Kevin Orr, the U.S. national coach for wheelchair track, said Wednesday.

His athletes are going to China looking to win gold medals for America, he said. They came to Okinawa to get better acclimated to Beijing’s time zone before the games start, Orr said.

The opportunity to train at military bases here was possible through the relationship U.S Paralympic sports has built with the Department of Defense, Orr said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Program has been working with recently injured veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the U.S. Naval Medical Center in Balboa, Calif., Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and other military rehabilitation centers since 2004, U.S. Paralympics spokeswoman Beth Bourgeois said Thursday.

Although they were not injured in combat, Paralympic athletes mentor servicemembers with similar injuries on what to expect and what they can do next, Bourgeois said.

The Paralympians tell injured servicemembers, "If I can do this, you can do this," she said.

The athletes show servicemembers they can lead full lives after a traumatic injury, Orr said.

"A lot of people don’t understand what is out there," Orr said.

Paralympic sports have come a long way in the last eight to 10 years, Julie O’Neal, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic swim teams, said Wednesday at Camp Foster’s 50-meter pool.

Competition to make the Paralympic team is at the same level as the Olympic trials, she said.

Her team is made up of athletes such as Dave Denniston, captain of the U.S. Paralympic men’s swim team, who just missed making the 2004 Olympic swim team.

In 2005, Denniston was paralyzed from the T-10 vertebrae — the lower-middle portion of his back — on down while sledding in Wyoming. He’s now looking to come home from Beijing with medals from the Paralympics, he said Wednesday.

Athletes are assigned classification numbers based on the severity of their physical limitations, so that they compete against those with the same limitations. The lower the number, the more you can’t use, Denniston explained.

As for the training at the bases, O’Neal and Orr agreed that the military has gone above and beyond to support the needs of the athletes.

"The athletes are relaxed, training well, having a good time, and it’s largely due to the environment and support provided," O’Neal said.

Now, she said, they head to Beijing, where they hope to bring home a high medal count for the United States.

Paralympic events

Archery

Wheelchair basketball

Boccia

Cycling

Equestrian

Fencing

Goalball

Judo

Powerlifting

Rowing

Sailing

Shooting

Sitting volleyball

Soccer

Swimming

Table tennis

Track and field

Wheelchair rugby

Wheelchair tennis

Source: www.usparalympics.org


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