Mohr - Paralympic Athlete and International Paralympic Committee CEO Xavier
I’m a big goal-setter,” said Travis Mohr just
after he walked off a jet that carried him from Hollywood, California,
to Denver. He sat in Denver International Airport, cell phone next to
his face, and listened patiently for the words, “Now boarding Denver
to Colorado Springs.”
The landing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, took 45 minutes extra to avoid
thunderstorms, but he was finally back in his temporary home after attending
the ESPY Awards. He’d been in the Colorado mountains from mid-June
until August 22, and then it was off to the ARCO/U.S. Olympic Training
Center for 10 days in Chula Vista, California, just south of San Diego.
He’ll go home briefly to his small town of Northampton, Pennsylvania.
Then it’s on to Washington DC.
Then to Athens.
He owns three world records and a gold and bronze medal from the 2000
Games in Sydney, and he has the chance to come home from Greece with as
many as six more medals, preferably gold. For the third time in his young
career, Mohr will be at the pinnacle of competition for athletes with
disabilities. He’s a veteran of the Paralympics, the second-largest
event in the world next to the Olympic Games. He’s a champion. And
he’s still a favorite in his swimming category.
It’s the little things that fuel his fire, like overcoming his 4-foot-3
height to drive his car or reach the top of a cabinet to get dishes. Mohr
was born without femur bones in his legs, a rare condition throughout
the world. He’s never met anyone with the same condition, though
he’s shared the pool with a multitude of athletes with just as many
different kinds of disabilities.
Most Paralympic competitors are divided into functional categories within
their respective sports, and athletes are evaluated based on their ability
to perform skills required by the sports in which they compete, not the
severity of their disabilities, paralleling the Olympic event separations
by weight. The categories separate athletes with visual impairments from
athletes with physical disabilities—amputations, spinal cord injuries,
cerebral palsy and disabilities like muscular dystrophy. Each athlete
is categorized by a letter representing the sport and a number corresponding
to his or her level of competition. “Classification is a long process,
because they try to make it as fair as possible,” says Mohr, who’s
classified as S8 on swimming’s 10-point scale. “I give them
credit—they do their research and make it even for all competitors.”
The 23-year-old Paralympian wouldn’t be competing if it weren’t
for the goals he set eight years ago. Atlanta was his first Paralympic
Games back in 1996. He was 15 then, swimming for the U.S. team. Competing
against an international assortment of swimmers with a variety of disabilities,
Mohr didn’t medal. But he didn’t mope about it, either. “After
the Atlanta Paralympics, I made my goal for Sydney to earn a medal,”
It was a good goal, and an even better achievement. At the 2000 Sydney
Paralympics, Mohr won the gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and a bronze
medal for the 100 backstroke. “I spent four years training to achieve
my goal, and that made it a hundred times better when I won the gold,”
Mohr says. “It’s all about the feeling I get. It sends chills
Following Sydney, Mohr broke three world records at the 2003 Canadian
Open—the 100 freestyle, the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke.
He broke his own breaststroke record again at the 2003 Last Chance meet
in Indianapolis and again at the 2004 Paralympic trials in Minnesota.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be the fastest in the world at
a particular time,” says Mohr, who’s still hungry. “I’m
focusing on the 100 backstroke world record in Athens. I’m less
than a second away. It’s the little things that can cut a second
off your time.”
The little things. In the pool, the little things Mohr works on now are
turns and breathing. Recently he trained in the thin Colorado air with
the other U.S. Paralympic athletes, preparing for the Athens journey.
He used to get up for 6 a.m. workouts with personal coach Richard Shoulberg
at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. In Colorado, he
had pool workouts for two hours in the mornings and two hours in the evenings.
Three days a week he worked with weights and did land exercises. “He
had a wonderful opportunity to train at high altitude and in better facilities
at Colorado Springs,” says Shoulberg, who has coached for 35 years
and mentored dozens of Olympians and Paralympians. “There, he could
get out of bed, walk to the dining hall, walk to the pool, walk to the
weight room. Here, we have to drive a total of 80 or 90 miles a day from
facility to facility to get that done.”
Little things like sleep and rest were precious between the training segments,
though often there was slim chance of getting them. He worked part-time
at a local Home Depot in Colorado under the Olympic Job Opportunities
Program, a collaboration between the home improvement retailer and the
U.S. Olympic Committee to assist Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. “I
don’t know many jobs I could hold while I’m training,”
says Mohr, who worked roughly 20 hours a week. “I only work shifts
of three or four hours, so it’s worked out great.” He’s
used to time management. His previous schedule of earning an engineering
degree from Drexel University, overseeing a ramp reconstruction at Baltimore-Washington
International Airport as an intern at Kiewit Construction, driving 20
miles every day just to train with Shoulberg, going back to Philadelphia
to finish up homework for the next day’s classes, and then finding
time to speak to young kids all across America who aspire to be like him
makes working at Home Depot 20 hours a week look like a hobby.
“I’ve had numerous students who have represented the U.S.
at the Olympics and the Paralympics, and Travis’ work ethic is equal
to or above anyone’s,” Shoulberg says. “There are a
lot of 23-year-olds who won’t make that commitment. He looks at
his disability as a blessing that has opened doors. There are a lot of
people in this world who have disabilities that are unable to be seen,
and they can’t ever overcome them. Travis has overcome a disability
that can be seen.”
“It’s all adaptation,” Mohr says. “If I can’t
reach something, I get a stool. To drive, I use hand controls. But otherwise,
I lead a regular lifestyle.” That’s always included swimming.
He first got into a pool at age five during his brother’s swimming
lessons, despite concerns from his parents and doctor, and two years later
he was swimming against able-bodied swimmers, although he was routinely
the last to touch the wall. “I didn’t pick up on swimming
too quickly,” he says. “It was a tough time in my life, because
I was swimming, but I was losing.”
There was pain—pain from finishing last in every race no matter
how hard he tried, pain from hours of training for a path that many would
have seen as a dead end, pain from knowing he was competing against different
odds than others in the pool.
There was curiosity—curiosity from people who responded to his slight
limp, short legs and regular-sized upper body with double-takes, the looks
Mohr has seen all too often; curiosity from the stares others would give
him at the pool, at school, at the mall; curiosity from within, wondering
if there was anything out there for him, a way he could competitively
swim against others facing the same hurdles in their lives.
But there was also determination to maintain his self-described positive
attitude and prove he belonged in the water, not only to finish races
but to compete, to finish next-to-last, to finish fifth, and ultimately
to finish first. Mohr’s times in the pool kept improving. In junior
high he made a major step—he began beating able-bodied swimmers.
The next step was finding competitive swimming for athletes with disabilities.
“I felt there was something out there, but I didn’t know how
to discover it,” he says. With some help from a junior high coach,
he did, and he began competing on the regional level and was quickly moved
to the national level in 1995. He made his first U.S. Paralympic team
the next year.
He paired with Shoulberg, who didn’t hesitate to help when told
that Mohr was seeking assistance. “I treat him just like any other
Olympic hopeful—I don’t give any slack,” Shoulberg says.
“I don’t care that he has a disability. He has goals, and
when I see he’s falling below expectations, I ring the bell. I can
tell you, though, I don’t have to ring the bell often.”
The work ethic that glows from Mohr brightens the pool at Germantown Academy.
Former Olympians still work with Shoulberg daily, and they soak up each
drop of energy that Mohr has. They look at him not with wonder or pity
but with admiration, says Shoulberg. With even the youngest children the
coach tutors, Mohr simply opens his mouth and his words are inspirational
music to their ears. “My kindergarten classes come in and see him
and they’ll always give that double-look,” Shoulberg says.
“He just smiles and starts talking with them. After that, they don’t
see his disability anymore. He inspires all of us, even me at 65.”
That’s because Mohr embodies dedication. His endless effort to broadcast
information about athletes with disabilities and the Paralympics has allowed
him to motivate individuals to achieve their personal goals. “I
love to share my story with others,” Mohr says, “because it’s
the best feeling when people come up to me and say I’ve inspired
His alma mater uttered those words this past June when Mohr received his
degree in civil engineering. Before he was handed his diploma, the Paralympian,
who didn’t swim on the school’s team, was given the highest
award bestowed upon students when president Constantine Papadakis presented
him the President’s Medal. Mohr was the only member of a record
3,500 graduating class to receive the award, which recognizes a Drexel
graduate for dedication to academics and community service. It looks like
a medal, but it has a much deeper meaning.
He says this may be his last Paralympics. When he returns from Athens,
he’ll again work at Kiewit, one of the largest construction companies
in North America, but now he’ll be a full-time field engineer making
sure designs are carried out properly. If this is his last Paralympics,
though, he has one more set of plans to check. Competing in the 100 backstroke,
100 breaststroke, 100 freestyle, 200 individual medley and possibly both
the 400 freestyle and 400 medley relays, his eyes are on more hardware.
“I can’t wait to see the medal count, especially in swimming,”
Mohr says. The medals will be worth more than gold.
Paralympian Progression - Interview with International Paralympic Committee
CEO, Xavier Gonzalez
When the torch is lit for the 12th Paralympic Games, athletes representing
countries from across the globe will join visions in Athens. It’s
not a search for gold, silver or bronze. It’s not about winning
versus losing. It’s unity, bringing individuals together as one
to celebrate competition and heritage. It’s an opportunity to spawn
international relationships at the highest level, representing the growing
interest and following of disabled sports.
The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, just after the Olympic
Games concluded. Athletes from 23 countries competed in archery, swimming,
fencing, basketball, table tennis and track and field. Sports and competitors
increased every four years, but the biggest leap was in 1988 when the
Paralympics were held at the same venues as the Olympics in Seoul. Better
logistics have continued to propel participation, with the 2000 Sydney
Paralympics hosting 3,843 athletes from 123 countries.
This year’s Paralympic Games are again expected to exceed previous
participation numbers, and Athens will become a benchmark for future Paralympics
also through expanding opportunities. More than 140 countries will be
represented at the games, the largest representation in the history of
the event. Women will be competing in judo and volleyball for the first
time, while football five-a-side and handcycling will make their inaugural
presence at the games this year, bringing the total number of sports to
19. Paralympic athletes will not have to pay for their participation for
the first time, adding to the goal of amateur sport for all.
Host city Athens has been preparing, and the country’s disabled
athletes have responded. The Athens government and the city’s Accessibility
Committee have worked to make venues more accessible to people with disabilities.
The changes have resulted in record participation of Greek Paralympic
athletes in this year’s Games. Greek athletes will participate in
13 Paralympic sports this year, compared to just five during the 2000
Sydney Paralympics, according to athens2004.com.
Steady growth of the Paralympic Games parallels that of its governing
body, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The IPC joined forces
with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by signing the IOC-IPC
Cooperation Agreement in 2000, bringing the governing bodies under the
same vision and coordination. Completing a new transition for the IPC,
Xavier Gonzalez was named chief executive officer in June.
Gonzalez, formerly the director of the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympics
and the Paralympic Games Liaison Director, will be heavily involved in
planning the next three winter and summer games. ABILITY Magazine’s
editor in chief, Chet Cooper, recently spoke to Gonzalez about his new
position, the integration of the IPC and IOC, and the Athens 2004 Paralympic
Chet Cooper: Congratulations on your new position. In general, what
do you think is most different about your experience now from what you’ve
done in the past, beginning with Barcelona?
Xavier Gonzalez: One of the biggest differences between being at the IPC
now as the executive officer responsible for the Games and being directly
at the Games is that I see things from a little father away. We have worked
closely together over the last few months leading up to the games, increasing
communication about the issues and the solutions. But I am still far away
from the action. I am a little less able to make the things happen. It’s
a new experience that I need to get used to. After being full-time in
one of the driver’s seats of the Games, now I am in one of the driver’s
seats of the IPC. But in terms of the Games, in the end it’s the
organizing committee that delivers the majority of the activities. Our
role at the IPC is more to help them, to monitor the progress and try
to be there when it’s necessary to make the right decisions.
CC: How different is the relationship between the International Paralympic
Committee and the International Olympic Committee now that they are part
of the same system?
XG: I think it’s something that has been evolving in both the summer
and winter games. We had experience in the Salt Lake games with one organizing
committee, but it was a much smaller event. Now in Athens, it’s
evident that it’s the right way to go. However, we need to do a
lot of work at the IPC to ensure the information and necessary details
are given to the organizing committee so they can do their work appropriately.
It has been a learning experience for me—adjusting to not being
there and looking in from the outside, trying to help them organize the
games. There are some challenges and some need for improvement, but I
think that with the IOC-IPC Cooperation Agreement we are now in a good
working relationship with Vancouver for the 2010 winter games. That is
six years away, but [joint planning] will make it a lot easier.
We will have the opportunity to be very involved in the selection process
for 2012, providing input from the IPC. It’s going to help in the
long term, and we’re moving in the right direction. Athens is a
good benchmark to see what things are working and what things will need
more emphasis in the future.
CC: What do you see happening with the Olympic sponsors and the Paralympic
sponsors? Is there more movement in that area or is it still difficult
to garner support?
XG: Sure it’s still difficult. The role of the sponsorship has become
more difficult for everyone, but again it comes back to the relationship
we have with the Olympic Games. We now have a long-term [vision of the
players involved] and the opportunities ahead for the Paralympics. We
are seeing a lot more interest from the top sponsors and from the domestic
sponsors. More of the top sponsors looking into the opportunity for long-term
relationships. Now we have Visa, not only with Athens but also with Torino
in 2006, and we are already looking to the future in Vancouver in 2012.
We have a few other top sponsors that are doing activities now in Athens,
and they’re expected to work in Torino. We believe Athens will provide
momentum for us to build on these relationships.
CC: Can you talk about the level of security for the 2004 Paralympic Games
XG: I can say the level of security that the Paralympics will have in
Athens will be, for the first time, parallel to that of the Olympics.
Athens is taking the issue of security for the Paralympics very seriously.
It was important before, but now it’s important for everybody. Because
it’s important that the Paralympics are included as part of the
assessment of security threats, working with one organizing committee
allows some issues to be addressed in a much better way.
CC: The Paralympics and ABILITY Magazine have similar missions
in trying to change attitudes and build awareness. Can you discuss how
the recent changes in the IPC will assist in building awareness.
XG: The IPC has made a very big statement in the last two years since
I have been in the driver’s seat. With the selection in November
of our new vision and mission, we are very committed to ensuring that
we increase awareness and change attitudes using sports as a tool. [Doing
so] affects the daily living of people with disabilities. We learned that
this concept was not as clear as we intended. It was there, but it was
not explicit, and now we want to be more explicit about the fact that
we are a sporting organization, we are about athletes, and we are about
changing attitudes for people with disabilities—changing attitudes
by ending any discrimination.
CC: Do you have any other thoughts heading into the 2004 Paralympic
XG: I think in general, we look forward, as an organization and a movement,
to the Games. We are back in Europe after doing a tour around the world,
and Europe is the birthplace of the Paralympics. I think this opportunity
to go back to the birthplace of the Olympic Games and now to try to bring
together the IOC and the IPC in concert in Athens is very exciting. I
think the organizing committee has had some difficulties, but the people
are very committed to the Paralympic Games. They have done some wonderful
things that probably will be evident when the Games happen, and we feel
very confident they will be very successful.
In all, we are expecting about 145 countries, so it will be the largest
Paralympic Games. We have almost all our membership attending, and that
is also very encouraging for us. I look forward to it, and I am very excited
about the next few weeks and the Games in Athens. I think Athens will
be the perfect launch for what we will see in the future. It’s an
important challenge, but it’s very exciting that the Games will
be going to the East, going to China for what I think is a huge opportunity
not only for the Paralympic movement but also for people with disabilities
to come to the largest country in the world.
International Paralympic Committee
by Josh Pate
Other articles in the Roma Downey issue include— Operation Smile,
Destination Athens, Stand-Up Comedy Scholarship, Reflections on the ADA,
Ticket to Work, UN Update, Events/Conferences, Humor Therapy...subscribe!