One of the largest national events ever staged for athletes with physical disabilities is set for Charlotte from June 30 to July 2, as the city hosts the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Trials for track and field, swimming and cycling teams will be staged over the three days, with the top athletes destined for teams competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The Rio games, Sept. 7-18, will be the largest Paralympic competition in history, with 4,500 athletes from 176 countries, said U.S. Olympic Committee officials.
At least two of the track and field events being held in Charlotte will be broadcast live on NBC, while others will be filmed by the network for a documentary.
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“A lot of people don’t realize how important this is to the country,” says Doug Youngblood of Charlotte-based Partners for Parks, the local organizing committee.
“This is a national event. But it’s also the first of its kind. There is no history for us to follow. We’re inventing this, learning as we go. If we succeed … we’ll raise awareness and support for Paralympics to new levels.”
The event is expected to fill 1,000 hotel rooms, creating an economic impact of more than $1 million, according to local tourism officials.
U.S. Olympic Committee officials say the Charlotte trials are a first, because never before has there been an event staged that brought together multiple team trials to create a single sporting event.
More than 400 Paralympic athletes, some as young as 12, are expected in the trials, and roughly 1 in 4 will be picked for Team USA. U.S. Paralympic officials say this year’s team will be the largest in history.
Each of the competitions will be staged in public locations to draw as many spectators as possible. This includes a final-day ceremony at uptown’s Romare Bearden Park, where rosters of the U.S. cycling, track and field, and swimming teams will be announced.
Other events will be staged at Johnson C. Smith University (track and field), Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center (swimming) and The Park-Huntersville (cycling).
Beth Bourgeois of the U.S. Paralympic organization said thousands of people are predicted to attend the trials from across the country.
“It is taking us to the next level to have multiple sports trials together in close proximity,” said Bourgeois, noting the Paralympic Games is the third-largest sporting event in the world.
“When people come and witness Paralympic sports for the first time, they get hooked. We hope this is going to create not just greater awareness but a hunger for the sport.”
North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 law, which among other measures restricts legal protections that cities can require for LGBT people and requires that people use restrooms in government facilities that match the gender on their birth certificate, prompted the U.S. Olympic Committee to consider whether the event should be moved from the state.
Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun issued a statement noting the organization is “committed to diversity and inclusion, and we do not believe that HB2 is consistent with those values.”
However, he said it wasn’t practical “at this late date to move the event without impairing the conditions under which our athletes compete for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team,” Blackmun said.
Partners for Parks landed the games a year ago, in part because there were sites in the area suitable for multiple sporting competitions. The group is an all-volunteer nonprofit and is covering much of the expense for the trials with its own money. An effort is underway to raise $50,000 to cover expenses and recruit 125 volunteers to serve during the events.
Youngblood said the athletes pay their own way to the events, which is why Partners for Parks is working to make the three days as easy as possible on them.
A handful of North Carolinians are set to compete, including Jill Moore and Paul Peterson of Charlotte. Both are track and field athletes.
Peterson, whose leg was amputated below the knee after a 2007 motorcycle crash, was a member of the 2013 World Team, winning a bronze medal in the 100 meters and in the long jump. In 2014, he again won a bronze medal in the 100 meters and garnered a silver in the long jump.
For 2016, Peterson says he wants to beat his personal best in the 100 meters of 11.23 seconds and become only the fourth American athlete to run under 11 seconds in the 100.