Brian Muscarella was working at his desk five years ago when he felt a numbness in his right arm and chest. He thought it was likely a muscle tear. He was wrong. “By the next morning, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t even sit up.”
Greg Taylor was riding a mountain bike 22 years ago in a popular local park when the front tire hit mud and flipped him on his head. “I never lost consciousness, but I couldn’t move,” he remembers. “I was there an hour, watching it get dark, when a couple of guys came by and saw me semi-wrapped around a tree.”
The two Charlotteans are examples of the 400 athletes with disabilities from around the country registered to compete in Charlotte this week in the 2016 U.S Paralympic Team Trials.
It’s a nationally recognized sporting event with 1 in 4 of the athletes destined to compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio games, Sept. 7-18, will be the largest Paralympic competition in history, with 4,500 athletes from 176 countries, says the U.S. Olympic Committee.
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Muscarella and Taylor are competing in the cycling time trials at The Park in Huntersville. Those trials will be held simultaneously with swimming, and track and field events in other locations.
Neither man has use of his legs, but they don’t see that as the big challenge. It’s their age. Muscarella is 58, and Taylor is a few months shy of 65. They’ll be competing against people as young as 16.
Some among the competitors are also Paralympic medalists and even record holders.
“With Paralympics, you go into it realizing anything is possible,” says Muscarella, whose injuries were due to a rare spinal stroke. “Greg and I were both told early on that we would need full-time caregivers, and we’d never be able to live on our own. You tell yourself: That’s not going to be me, and you fight to prove people wrong. Not only can I take care of myself, but I can compete on a national level.”
Muscarella says he and Taylor have ranked well in some Para-cycling Road Championship races, and he believes they’ll give the younger athletes some stiff competition.
The U.S. Olympic Committee says it can’t yet give an exact count of how many Carolinians are among the 400 competitors, because the trials are an open competition. That means any athlete who meets the qualifying standards is allowed to register, including newcomers to Paralympics.
However, at least a dozen have declared their intent to compete, including Charlottean Paul Peterson, who lost a leg in a 2007 motorcycle accident on Thanksgiving Day. Peterson was 15 at the time. He has been ranked among the top 20 Paralympic runners in the world and was a member of the 2013 Paralympic World Team in track and field. He won the bronze medal in the 100 meters and in the long jump.
Each of 400 has a story of overcoming blindness, paralysis or amputations. Some were born with disabilities, while for others, the disability occurred later in life, after wrecks, freak accidents or illness.
Some of the Carolinians competing are veterans of the Adaptive Sports & Adventures program at Carolinas Rehabilitation, a hospital in the Carolinas HealthCare System. The program introduces people with disabilities to adaptive sports and even offers to lend the kind of adaptive equipment that can lead them to Paralympic-level competition.
Jennifer Moore, coordinator of the program, says awareness of adaptive sports and Paralympic competition has skyrocketed in recent years due largely to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities. Most were athletes before they were injured and refuse to stop, despite losing limbs, movement or their sight, she says.
Muscarella and Taylor are graduates of the program and now help raise money for it (www.cycletothesea.org).
“The drive to succeed for these athletes doesn’t go away,” says Moore. “They are as highly competitive as able-bodied athletes. … Those we are serving are being provided outlets that show them their life is not over. Instead of believing ‘I have nothing left,’ it’s showing what they can do.”
The competition in Charlotte and Huntersville will culminate at 11 a.m. Sunday with a reading of the complete Team USA roster to the public at Romare Bearden Park.
Unlike Muscarella, Taylor is positive his name won’t be on the list. But that has nothing to do with why he’s competing.
“Rio is out of the question, but a challenge is a challenge, and this one is in my backyard,” he says.
“No way am I missing it.”
Paralympic Team Trial sites
The public is invited to be spectators at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials. Below are schedules.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, 800 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Preliminaries start at 9 a.m. Finals start at 5 p.m.
Track and field
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at The Irwin Belk Complex, Johnson C. Smith University, 500 N. Summit Ave.
Preliminaries start at 8:30 a.m., finals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, competition starts at 2:45 p.m. and runs until 7 p.m.
Cycling time trials
The Park – Huntersville, 13801 Reese Blvd., Huntersville.
Time trials start 7:55 a.m. Saturday and run through 11 a.m.