Travis Mohr — Profile Of A Paralympic Athlete

Circa 2004

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 midJune 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.

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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,” he says.

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 through you.”

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.”

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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 selfdescribed 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.

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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 them.”

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.

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