For the hundredth time, she wrapped her hands tightly around the barbell and breathed in deeply. She pushed the weight up over the rack and waited for the signal from the judge. For a moment, she blocked out every other thought and concentrated on only one task: bringing the weight down onto her chest and powerfully pressing it back up again. Adeline Dumapong was preparing to become a champion.
In those few seconds on the bench, Dumapong was no longer the 6-year-old from a small village in the landlocked Ifugao province in the Philippines whose parents had carried up mountains when polio paralyzed her from the waist down. She wasn’t the girl who was sent to an institution for kids with disabilities in far-away Manila to be given a chance at life.
In August 1997, Dumapong was a woman competing in her first powerlifting competition. She had discovered the sport a few months earlier at the age of 23, and was seeking her next step after finishing her bachelor’s degree in computer secretarial administration. On that bench, she had fallen in love. The feeling of raw strength, transmitting from her arms and chest, moved through every part of her body.
In this first competition, Dumapong competed against lifters without disabilities, as was the norm for her early career. To make matters more difficult for herself, she refused her coach’s advice to wear a bench shirt, like many of the other lifters, to aid her lift. He stood by, frustrated, telling her that if she lost it would be her own fault for being stubborn.
“I was full of self-doubt,” Dumapong remembers. “But, I took on the challenge, concentrated on my lifts, and blocked everything else out. Thank God, I won.”
Like Dumapong, there are athletes and adaptive sports leaders around the world who use the power of sport every day to make tremendous impacts in their societies, both at and away from the medals podium. In Ecuador, there is a National Paralympic Committee president who saw the devastation an earthquake ravaged in his country’s rural provinces and sprung to action. In Belarus, a wheelchair tennis coach fights for her athletes to shine alongside the country’s other Paralympic hopefuls. Only a few hours south of Dumapong in Cebu, Philippines, a disability rights advocate stands on a pier, organizing his country’s first adaptive and cross-disability dragon boat team, and helps guide them to gold in their first international competition.
The now 44-year-old Dumapong is the greatest Paralympic powerlifter in Filipino history—the country’s first-ever Paralympic medalist, winning bronze in powerlifting at the 2000 Sydney Games—and is preparing to represent her country for a sixth time at Tokyo 2020. A mentor and role model to thousands of girls in the Philippines, she wants to pave the way for those who will carry on her legacy, showing that disability doesn’t stop a person from scaling mountains.
“Sport was my escape and my refuge when life was hard,” Dumapong says. “It is the way I discovered I can do anything.”
For Dumapong and the others, what ties them together is not only their commitment to using sport to promote inclusion and empower people with disabilities. It is also their participation in one of the United States’ most unique public diplomacy initiatives: the U.S. Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP).
Using Sports Diplomacy to Touch the World
Launched in 2012, the GSMP annually brings together leading disability rights and women’s equality advocates, athletes, administrators, and innovators from around the world on a five-week exchange program through the Sta
te Department’s Sports Diplomacy division. During its first four editions, the initiative focused primarily on women’s empowerment with ESPNW as a private sector partner. In 2016, the State Department added a separate disability sport-focused mentorship component, Sport for Community, thanks in part to the advocacy of Ann Cody, a three-time U.S. Paralympian and current senior foreign affairs officer in the Office for International Disability Rights at the State Department.
“Through Sport for Community, international participants learn about ongoing efforts by the United States to improve opportunities for persons with disabilities,” Cody says, “in sport and all areas of life, and promote the benefits of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act globally.”
During the program, applicants recruited by U.S. embassies around the world travel to the United States, where they spend one week absorbing curriculum focused around the topic of sport for social change from The University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, the cooperative agreement partner for the initiative, and local partners in Washington DC. These “emerging leaders,” as they are called, are then partnered with mentors from the country’s top disability sport organizations for three weeks. At these sites, they work on creating a comprehensive action plan for enacting sport-based social change in their local communities. In the past two years, the organizations involved in the program have included the U.S. Olympic Committee, Lakeshore Foundation, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center, among others. The program concludes back in the U.S. capital, where the international leaders present their plans to representatives from the State Department.
“Assembling some of the brightest minds and creative spirits in DC to embark on the process of creating cost-effective, culturally relevant action plans is like watching magic unfold in real-time,” says Sarah Hillyer, Ph.D., director of The Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. “The beauty of these magical moments is that emerging leaders return to their home communities equipped and empowered to implement programs and policies that are changing the lives of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.”
Dumapong participated in the inaugural program in 2016, where she was mentored by executives at Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. Others, including Valeria Filiaeva who was mentored at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network in Boston, traveled from as far as Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Kosovo to spend three weeks at mentor sites across the United States.
“The program is still inspiring me one year later,” says Filiaeva, the Belarusian wheelchair tennis coach. “When hope was almost gone, and I thought we’d lost all support, the GSMP pushed me to believe like crazy that I could do this, and that passed onto my students, the leaders at the federation, and the government, who finally took us seriously.”
Filiaeva arrived to the program with one key goal in mind: earning official status for wheelchair tennis from the Belarusian government. This status would allow her to develop athletes to compete in International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments and, hopefully, one day represent Belarus in the Paralympics.
For years, Filiaeva had taught students on whatever courts she could find. She downloaded YouTube videos and translated articles from wheelchair tennis websites. Balancing work as a tennis commentator for Belarusian television, and a producer for Stringershub, she volunteered to organize wheelchair tennis for the Belarusian Tennis Federation.
Last June, when she returned home from the GSMP,
Filiaeva immediately set to work. With the national federation’s support, she forged a partnership with a local training center for adaptive athletes and won a development grant from the ITF, which she will use to organize a summer tennis camp for six to eight international players, and eight of her own, in preparation for ITF Futures Series tournaments in Poland and Lithuania.
In February, Filiaeva and the Belarusian federation received even better news: the official government recognition they’d sought since the days of public courts and YouTube videos. The new status gave their players access to the Belarus Tennis Academy courts and Paralympic Republic Center, a state-of-the-art facility where the country’s Paralympics and Deaflympics athletes train. The center also provides salaries for two coaches and support for two annual tournaments, while the federation will provide support for two other tournaments, allowing Filiaeva’s players the chance to participate in four international tournaments a year.
“It was like a dream come true,” Filiaeva says. “I feel like I am the mother of wheelchair tennis in Belarus.”
Overcoming Obstacles Along the Way
Of the 31 international leaders who have participated in the 2016 and 2017 classes of the GSMP, the majority, like Dumapong and Filiaeva, come from developing countries. Through U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, the U.S. Department of State aims to select leaders who are not only powerful advocates and influencers, but who can use the GSMP experience to further impact thousands of lives, according to Trina Bolton, a program officer with the State Department’s Sports Diplomacy division.
“When people with disabilities have an opportunity to get in on the game—to compete in a race, score a goal, manage a team, or run a league—these accomplishments serve as leapfrog proof that everyone can contribute in sports, and in turn, society,” Bolton says. “Through sports, people from all walks of life—including people with disabilities—experience increased independence, self-confidence, and health. When everyone can reach their potential and contribute fully to society, it is a win-win for the United States and other countries, creating a more stable and secure world.”
Bayron Lopez, the president of the Ecuador Paralympic Committee, had his leg amputated following a motorcycle accident as a teenager. In the months after his accident, he felt isolated and forgotten by the rest of society—common feelings, he says, for people with disabilities in Ecuador, especially those in rural and provincial communities.
“I met Ann Cody in 1998, two years after my accident, when she came to talk about inclusive sports in Ecuador,” Lopez says. “I was 20 years old, and she motivated all of us to move forward through sports, and to fight for the rights of people with disabilities.”
An accomplished wheelchair racer who has won more than 300 medals over the past decade, Lopez’s medals, which he prominently displays in his living room, are only a reminder of the thousands in his country who have never had the chance to strap into a racing chair, hit a volleyball, or score a basket. After running his own sports club in his hometown, El Empalme, he ran for and won the presidency of his Paralympic committee (Lopez was re-elected through Tokyo 2020 last year).
During the program, Lopez worked with Mark Lucas, executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. Two months prior to starting the GSMP, in April 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rattled Ecuador, with reports of more than 650 people dead and 16,600 injured. The Esmeraldas and Manabí provinces—two of the worst-affected regions—are home to thousands of people with disabilities, and Lopez instinctually thought of how these already inaccessible communities would be left even more ravaged by the damage. He told Lucas he wanted to do something to bring back home. The name of his plan the men created together suits the mission: No Fear. No Limits. Sports for All.
Once he arrived back at home, Lopez took long rides to the provinces, using his platform as the Paralympic committee president to meet with leaders to see how he could help them. He organized workshops to train coaches on inclusive sports activities, and held amputee soccer and sitting volleyball clinics. In Quito, he challenged Paralympic athletes to step up and be role models. Cristian Calderon, a director within the Ministry of Sport who played professional soccer for national champions El Nacional (1992, 1996) and Olmedo (2000), joined Lopez in Esmeraldas to get the community out to participate in his sports events.
Despite his determination, there were many doors that closed in Lopez’s face during the early days. There were no-shows to his events, and leaders who challenged the role sport could play in revitalizing a community with such limited resources.
“Many of the schools wouldn’t release their students because the teachers didn’t believe sport could do anything to help them,” Lopez recalls. “I’d speak in the villages. I was in the newspaper and on the radio. All my activities were paid for. And many people still didn’t attend.”
These challenges are not unique for alumni of the GSMP. On top of societal doubts about the impact of sport in the lives of people with disabilities, there are shifting government priorities, fundraising challenges, and other long-standing issues with accessibility and grassroots sports development. Leaders like Lopez often find themselves at a crux.
In Brazil, another Sport for Community alumnus, Anderson Gama, struggled to convince his bosses to invest in grassroots sport and not in high-performance sports. In Nepal, inaccessibility and unreliable telecommunications systems made it difficult for Deepak KC to organize meetings with potential partners. In Ethiopia, limited funding, a high demand for few adequate sports facilities, and the absence of Deaf sports professionals combined to frustrate Alemayehu Teferi.
Regardless, these leaders all persevered. Lopez, who was at the point of abstaining from running for re-election with the Paralympic committee to focus entirely on grassroots work, chose to be patient and maximize the support he had with the country’s disability sports federations, the U.S. Embassy, and Ministry of Sports. In November, the State Department funded a trip for Lucas to travel to the provinces with Lopez, where they spent three days running workshops and clinics for more than 375 people.
“For years as the president of the NPC, I was on one side of the desk,” Lopez says. “The GSMP made me realize I wanted to be a president not only working with elite athletes, but a president who is in the towns, the villages, and in the community supporting the thousands of people who want to be included.”
From One to Many
Dumapong no longer spends most her time in the gym. As a board member with both the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently-Abled (PHILSPADA) and the Philippine Paralympic Committee, and a member of the women’s committee of the Asian Paralympic Committee, she is focused on building for the future. In Rio, after 16 years, the country added its second Paralympic medalist as Josephine Medina won bronze singled Class 8 in table tennis. She feels the time is right to identify leaders who will carry on her legacy of empowerment.
“Before going on the program, sport was always about me trying to reach my goals and improve my life,” Dumapong says. “It was Adeline first. Then I reached out to the community as part of my obligation as an athlete. After the program, I realized, ‘Come on Adeline, you can do something bigger and better for your country.’”
One of Dumapong’s main activities has been bridging the gap between Paralympic athletes, coaches, and administrators. She has organized an athlete’s council and a women’s group within the NPC for the first time to help voice the concerns of athletes. In January, she led a two-day soft skills training seminar for PHILSPADA with 82 athletes and coaches in attendance. At the seminar, which she called “Together We Can!”, attendees learned about how personal accountability, conflict resolution, clear communication, and other leadership skills contribute to a more unified Philippines delegation.
“The impact results speak volumes,” Hillyer says. “The result of one emerging leader returning home is that thousands are being reached. Beyond the individual impact, we’re witnessing a movement of leaders working closely together to bring about change on a larger and more systematic, sustainable scale.”
Dumapong now plans to organize Paralympic sports festivals in three major cities—Metro Manila, Baguio City, and Cebu—where she’ll partner with schools and different civic organizations so people can learn about adaptive sports and try wheelchair basketball, goalball, powerlifting, and other Paralympic sports. She hopes to rely on the support of the Philippine Sports Commission and U.S. Embassy to make these festivals a reality.
“For me, programs like the GSMP are very important because they open your mind to the power of collective action,” Dumapong says. “When you touch one person and they bring this lesson to the community, and community buys into it, the fight becomes one that everyone fights for. It’s not about one person. That is when real progress happens.”
As the moonlight reflects on the water off the pier of the Cebu Yacht Club in the Philippines, a group of more than 30 dragon boaters gather their paddles and make their way down the ramp to their boat. It is 4 a.m. and the team is tired from a week of practices, but they’ve found the strength to push ahead, setting their eyes on a prize never achieved by a dragon boat team in their country.
In their last three races, the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Team impressed against the top teams in the Philippines. The success earned them an invitation to compete in the International Para Dragon Boat Championships at the 2017 Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival last June. The competition was by far their biggest test since coming together in August 2016.
In Hong Kong, they prepared to compete against other paddlers with disabilities for the first time. Since their story began, PADS has made headlines as a group of differently-abled paddlers racing against non-disabled teams. On the team, there are men and women who are blind, deaf, amputees, polio survivors, and who have other disabilities. In Hong Kong, they competed in the 400-meter mixed standard category, facing teams consisting of paddlers with and without disabilities. The night before their race, the event organizers urged the team to change its crewlist to include non-disabled paddlers, wanting to ensure their safety in anticipation of rough waters and poor weather conditions, but PADS refused to make any adjustments even if it would lead to disqualification from the competition.
“We trained as a full persons with disabilities team and that’s how we raced,” says JP Maunes, founder of the PADS organization (Philippine Accessible Disability Services) and the organizer of the team. “We’re trying to bring an end to the days when we treat people with disabilities different, and it would be an insult to our team to change now. Dragon boat is our instrument of change.”
Dragon boat racing originated in mainland China more than 2,000 years ago. In its standard form, the sport consists of groups of 22 paddlers racing boats decorated in traditional Chinese dragon heads and tails in 500-meter races, although other variations exist. In the 1970s, the Hong Kong Tourist Association began organizing unofficial international competitions, until an official international federation, headquartered in the country, was created in 1991.
Maunes, a participant in the 2016 U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), had not been familiar with dragon boat racing before last summer. Most of his adult life has been focused on Deaf rights advocacy, carrying on the legacy of a childhood friend who introduced him to the challenges faced by the Deaf community in the Philippines. After participating in the GSMP, where he spent three weeks with mentors from Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now ShirleyRyan Ability Lab), Maunes returned home to Cebu on a mission to expand his work, and incorporate a sports component that would promote inclusion of people with disabilities in his community.
When he arrived in Cebu, Maunes sought out existing adaptive sports programs that he could tap into, but says he found none. After a few months of public speaking engagements and sending out messages on social media, he found a friend online who was competing on a dragon boat team at Cebu Yacht Club. He asked her if she could talk to her coach about organizing training sessions for paddlers with disabilities.
“Dragon boat made perfect sense,” Maunes says. “During the training, when you look at the paddlers in the boats, you can never tell if they have disabilities or not. It’s a good message of inclusion for the community.”
The coach accepted, and Maunes went to work recruiting his team. From the beginning, he said it would be a team inclusive of all people. At their first practice, they had one woman with a congenital disability affecting one of her legs. The next week, she brought a friend. Within a month, there was no room left on the borrowed boat to fit everyone who had shown up to the pier seeking a spot on the team. With greater numbers, and improved organization, the paddlers’ desire to compete grew. Soon they were training five times a week for three hours, starting at 4 a.m.
After their first exhibition race, PADS set their sights on participating in an official national competition. By April, the team was registered to compete in two national festivals in Cebu and Boracay. With more than 30 paddlers—15 women, 17 men—ranging from 19 to 62 years old, and with a range of disabilities, the challenge became figuring out how to maximize each of their strengths to be competitive against the Philippines’ most powerful dragon boat teams.
Maunes and the team came up with a plan. Paddlers with disabilities affecting their lower bodies were made responsible for being the powerhouses of the team, as they had been developing their upper body muscles for much of their lives and were among the strongest in the boat. The Deaf paddlers were taught commands so they could communicate with the others. The blind paddler, who was the team’s weakest at the beginning, was moved around the boat until he was placed in the “pacer” position at the front, setting the rhythm and stride for the rest of the team.
In their third race at the Cebu Dragon Boat Fiesta in April, PADS finished second in their category behind the Philippine Navy, the No. 1 seed and one of the Philippines’ strongest teams. A week earlier they had gone toe-to-toe against the Air Force and National Police in the Boracay International Dragon Boat Festival, losing their races by the slightest margins.
“In Cebu, the Navy paddlers came up to us to take pictures and exchange uniforms,” Maunes says. “These are guys we were watching on video, and who the majority of our paddlers looked up to, and they told us, ‘You guys are the real winners. We train twice a day, six days a week, and you almost beat us up. It was an honor to race you.’”
The sport changed the course of the lives of many of Maunes’ paddlers. While some made a living as fisherman, most were unemployed. Companies heard about the team’s achievements, and with Maunes’ help, many of its members were placed into new jobs. Their youngest paddler, who was injured in 2016, reached out to the team through social media and asked if he could train with them because he felt lost after acquiring his disability. Now he tells Maunes that dragon boating saved him from wasting his life.
In Hong Kong, the PADS team competed against elite teams from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. They lost their first race to the defending champions, Golden Eagle of Hong Kong. The two teams met again in the finals. This time, the PADS paddlers raced to the lead, slicing their paddles into the water and never looking back. Crossing the finish lane, PADs defeated their rivals by 7 seconds to become the first adaptive dragon boat team in Philippines history to win gold in international competition.
“Every time we train dragon boat, we don’t just train ourselves physically to become stronger but we train our heart and soul to become loving,” team member Kris Chan told The Manila Times after the race. “With that we can do anything because we have put our hearts in every stroke. I know, we all know that the team had physical disabilities, but these individuals have an able heart that makes us all equal.”
by Brian Canever