Reflections on the Olympic Wheelchair Racing Exhibition Races
By Scott Hollenbeck
Scot Hollenbeck, a professional wheelchair racer and disability sport advocate, just competed in the Olympic Finals and is off to the Paralympics. At age 14, a vehicular accident shattered his 10th-12th thoracic vertebrae and severed his spine. Then an avid runner, swimmer, and cyclist, he made the decision to convert his energies to wheelchair racing. Since then, Scot has competed in three Paralympic Games - Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000; four Olympic Games 1500-meter exhibition races - Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004, and many other competitions.
"Since NBC did not air the event, here is a first-hand take. Funny thing about an Olympic final on the biggest night of track and field in the 2004 Olympic Games is that time moves extremely slow and extremely fast, space expands and it contracts. The last hour before your event is called slows time down to a crawl. The final pumping of the tires, pulling on the jersey, that last sip of water. They all linger and move in slow motion. Then the event is called. All the athletes are reviewed by a track referee, you line up, some pray, some yell, some stare, some smile and say good luck. The 600-meter march under the main stadium, in a 6-foot wide tunnel is strange. The lights bounce off the walls, which seem to move with the explosion of the crowd with another successful high jump or the entry of the marathon or the javelin throw. As you move closer to the stadium, time speeds up, your heart rate increases, adrenaline flows but you beat it back. You stay calm you stay focused; time slows again. The final looks into your competitors' eyes reveal extreme calm, fear, attempted anger; all human emotions bubbling through, regardless of the best acting skills mustered up. The final call, and then out unto the track.
It is brighter and feels warmer out then it did 20 minutes ago. The stadium looks huge, then it contracts as you see a smile and a wave from a single person in the stands; your eyes connect, you smile back - they smile really big. The camera flashes are blinding at first. It feels like there was recently a fight in the air; there is a controlled human desire for competition everywhere. The scene is beautiful and eerie. It is immense, the fans rise into the night sky but you can see all their faces, you can see their flags, even their water bottles as they drink. I wonder what they are thinking about. I am thinking: take what the race gives you. Nothing more, do not force the situation, go at 500 meters to the finish. Save everything possible for that moment. And then never look back, be at complete and total peace, and do what you love. Stroke the chair to 21mph as relaxed as a bird flies.
Five minutes in the stadium waiting for the next medal ceremony and the final high jump attempts seem to take forever. Then, finally, after all the years, all the training, all the injuries, the setbacks, the victories, the losses, it is there - the cameraman comes to each athlete, the announcer announces, I wink.
The starter raises the gun, the crowd sounds disappear, muscles tense - I clear my mind, go blank, and ask the universe for compassion, for understanding, and for peace, and the gun cracks the air. Time speeds up. Japan blasts from lane two into the first position. Australia starting in lane one surges into second. I start in third and allow a small gap for the rest of the field to dream of; then, when France and Thailand accelerate for the third spot, I burst forward and slam the door, leaving them in lane two and three without a draft. At 200m, Mexico attacks to the first position from fifth. He drives the speed to 19.6 mph and holds it through to 400m, then pulls out to lane two looking to get into the pack, but there are no openings and he moves to the back. Japan surges; the rest of us respond. The first lap is 1.9 seconds off the 400m world record. Then Japan sits up, the pace drops to 15.9 mph. The pack contracts. Athletes jostle and jockey trying to move into better spots. There is grunting and yelling, the breathing is starting to increase. At 800m, Japan moves out of first and has me boxed in as I sit behind Australia, who now leads. He is pushing slowly at 17 mph. The crowd is roaring again, I look up and see us on a jumbo screen - we are literally racing into ourselves. A surreal moment. The race favorite, a huge Frenchman, is moving to the outside in the back. I see him on the screen. He is preparing for a high-speed attack, his usual at 600m before the finish. The Canadian is next to him along with the Thai athlete. I try to squeeze out of the box that the Japanese athlete has me in - he leans into me - I yell to the Australian, "They are coming," I urge him, "Go, go!" He thinks it a ruse. Then, over the crowd, over the pounding of the handrims as the solid gloves hit aluminum and the aluminum hits carbon fiber wheels - these wheels are the drums of war - the sound of chairs hitting each other, the sound of angry breathing, a mottled cry, and a crack. There has been a crash in the back. The Canadian goes down hard.
Now Australia - Now you must go 500 meters left - there is a crash - now is the time - my intended plan of attack is now. But I am boxed and stuck ... at 420m to the finish, he explodes to 20+ mph; I stay relaxed and close the gap. At 300m, I am on him, and he is faltering, his body is speaking tired, he is mine. There is no one in my periphery; I can hear no other athletes. I stay focused but my mind says, "This race is yours." I push too hard, and I get too close and I am in between his rear wheels, as I stop stroking and wait for his chair to roll away enough to clear my front wheel and go. The German literally screams as he surges from behind me (he is a 20-year professional racer who also knows what must be done). I am boxed; there goes the gold, I have lost the jump and the most important part of the finish - inertia. Mexico jumps onto Germany's draft. There goes the silver. I squeeze out from behind Australia. I must get around the Australia; 100 meters left. I focus with everything I have, hammer, hammer, hammer, breathe 24 inches left, 50 meters to go, 12 inches, 20 meters, 2 inches, 10 meters - he is mine. Then in true Olympic spirit, in lane four Thailand is 6 inches off me - I never saw him or heard him. At 5 meters, I am around Australia. Thailand and I are a dead finish in my eyes. I roll around and on the big screen the smallest incremental time difference in track is shown between our names. 1/100th of a second - he got me. Today I am the fourth fastest on the planet; I feel good, I am honored to race these human beings; I am honored to be a part of such a spectacle. I am very happy for Rawat the Thai athlete, as this will be good for him and his family in Thailand. I am happy for all the athletes. Time to reflect, consider what this all means. But there are buses to catch, equipment to pack, planes to catch. At 250 meters, I truly believed I had it won. I misjudged my competitors' speed and got caught up. That is racing, and it is perfect exactly how it turned out; it was a good moment to be a human.
All the above is based on vague recount, because in those 3 minutes and 11 seconds, time was not time. Now it is gone."