I am a Paralympian
Notice: The bolded words throughout the piece have been provided by Emma Schieck to provide clarity to certain terms that have been misunderstood or unrecognized by society. When reading, the Clean Slate Team encourages you to read more about these terms by tapping on them to expand their definitions and incorporating them as part of Emma's story.
In 2016 the U.S. Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team won gold at the Rio Paralympics. I didn’t even watch because I had no clue that sitting volleyball existed and, in all honesty, I had no interest in the Paralympics.
Today, I am a proud Paralympic gold medalist and love everything about the Paralympic movement.
The only thing I regret about my athletic career is my delayed involvement with adaptive sports.
This term includes both “traditional” and adaptive sports. All adaptive sports are physically challenging and still sports, even if they are not as commonly known.
A complication with my birth left me with a Brachial Plexus Injury (BPI) that affected my left arm. I can’t straighten my arm, rotate it, or put it behind my back. Since I have such a limited range of motion, it is also weaker. When I was younger, my parents had me play soccer because they believed that was a sport where my arm wouldn’t get in the way. You can imagine their concerns when I fell in love with volleyball at seven years old. They were worried I would constantly be frustrated and struggle to succeed. Looking back now, I can say that they were half right.
Volleyball was not always easy, and I faced more struggles than I can count, but I have always loved it.
Eight years into my volleyball career, I was a high school freshman playing for IC Stars Volleyball Club based out of Statesville, NC, A referee approached me at the Big South National Qualifier in Atlanta, Georgia. The referee told me about sitting volleyball and asked if I had heard of it. Her and I went back and forth about my eligibility for the sport before the conversation ended. I remember telling my teammate Dulaney that I would never try sitting volleyball. I said something along the lines of “Why would I?” I have two legs and can play standing volleyball, at that point I had been playing standing volleyball for half of my life.
I didn’t think I needed the sitting version of the sport.
The adaptive version of volleyball. Standing volleyball, beach volleyball, and sitting volleyball are the three main disciplines of volleyball, but there are other versions as well including snow volleyball, grass volleyball, and Para beach volleyball. Sitting volleyball is played 6v6 on a smaller court with a shorter net. Athletes use their arms to push themselves instead of running. Athletes must have some piece of their body from butt to shoulders in contact with the floor at all times. One of the most interesting differences between sitting volleyball and other disciplines is that in sitting volleyball you can block the serve.
My mindset towards sitting volleyball is more common amongst others than I realized. Failing to recognize adaptive sports as unique and challenging rather than an “easier” version of a “traditional” sport sets adaptive sports back and is a huge barrier to their growth. Young athletes who want to be seen as “normal” are afraid to become involved in adaptive sports because of the stigma surrounding them.
Adaptive sports are not just a last resort for people with disabilities who want to be active, they can also be intense, elite, and competitive.
Realizing and sharing the excitement of adaptive sports makes them more appealing to everyone. The first time someone had mentioned sitting volleyball to me, I failed to recognize their importance and found comfort in knowing I was just fine as a standing volleyball player. I didn’t understand that I could be both a standing and sitting volleyball player.
Adaptive sports were created with people who have disabilities in mind.
A year went by and I didn’t think of sitting volleyball or adaptive sports once. I found myself once again at the Big South National Qualifier, playing this time for Precision Athletics Volleyball Club, when another referee approached me. This referee’s name was Elliot Blake and I soon learned that he was the coordinator for USA Volleyball’s Developmental Sitting Volleyball Program, which at the time was called the A2 Program. Elliot asked about my arm, and with a little convincing got me to try the sport.
A few weeks later, my dad and I were on my way to Norfolk, Virginia for a grassroots sitting volleyball tournament. This event was made for both able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities to try the sport in a fun environment.
Unlike my standing volleyball experience, I did not love sitting volleyball the first time that I played.
At best, I felt neutral about it but decided to give it another try. Elliot asked me to come to the A2 and National Team training site in Edmond, Oklahoma for an A2 camp. Concerned about sending their 15-year-old daughter to Oklahoma with a man they’d just met for a program they knew nothing about, my parents decided it was best for my mom and I to make the 21 hour drive to Edmond for the camp.
This training camp was my first formal training in sitting volleyball, and I could not believe how difficult the sport was. I had spent the past 9 years playing standing volleyball and had put in a lot of hard work to become a confident and skilled player. When I first sat down to play sitting volleyball, it felt like all that hard work had amounted to nothing.
Simple skills I had learned years ago felt impossible, and no matter how hard I tried I could not get the movement aspect down.
I left that first camp sore in muscles I didn’t even know I had, dreading the 21-hour drive home, and not feeling like this sport was for me. It took a lot of consideration before I decided to come back and give it one more try. I am thankful I stuck with it because after my second training camp I received an email from Bill Hamiter, the head coach for the U.S. Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team, asking me to come to a National Team Training Camp.
We currently have 17 athletes who are on the National Team and train year-round. This is a group of elite athletes who represent our country at various competitions every year. Not all National Team athletes compete at the Paralympic Games.
A few months later, I attended my first National Team Camp, and I was shocked to say the least. The U.S. Women’s National Team remains the number one team in the world, and it was clear throughout the camp.
The game was so fast, the athletes were incredible, and the coaches did everything they could to make us better.
I began envisioning myself one day having a place on this team. This camp was when I realized that sitting volleyball was something I loved and wanted to pursue, no matter what that was going to take. It took a year and a half before I officially made the National Team and a full two years before I rostered for my first international event in November 2019.
During those two years, I would fly to Oklahoma once a month to train with the team. At our training camps, I was not only learning the technical skills of sitting volleyball, but I was also becoming more aware of what was happening off-court. I would spend downtime talking with teammates and learning about their journeys.
I quickly caught onto the fact that we, as professional female athletes who play Paralympic sports, were not treated the same as our male or Olympic counterparts.
Watching the amount of time and energy that some of my teammates put into fighting for equal resources, pay, and coverage was most shocking. It was hard to believe that our team was expected to dedicate our lives to training to be the best in the world, while also having to fight for basic resources we need to succeed. Only three years ago it was announced that medal payout was finally going to be equal between Olympians and Paralympians, but not without Paralympic athletes championing equality.
Athletes like my own teammate, Katie Holloway, had to take time and energy away from their training to convince others our equal accomplishments were worth equal recognition.
An athlete who has competed at the Paralympics. This is not interchangeable with Olympian.
Today, I write this as I come up on the four-year anniversary of my first National Team Training Camp. Since it is difficult to put my experience into words, I have decided to compile a list of 10 lessons that I learned along my journey to become a Paralympic gold medalist. I have also included a few terms to know, with the hopes that you will leave this with a better understanding of Paralympic sports and the incredible athletes that make them.
Athletes who compete in Paralympic sports are placed into classifications based on their disability. Classifications include type of disability and its. In sitting volleyball, we only have two classifications. There is a “minimal” and “full” disability. Only two minimal can be on each roster and only one minimal can be on the court at the time. Track and Field, also known as Athletics, has 32 classifications for athletes to compete in.
1. There is not one way to have a disability
When I was in Tokyo, I met more people than I could possibly remember – and very few with the same disability. Even those that did had adapted differently and moved through life in their own way.
Athletes who compete for the United States at an Olympic or Paralympic Games represent Team USA. Team USA is not restrictive to just one of the Games and can be considered the overarching term. There are events other than the Olympic and Paralympic Games that Team USA sends athletes to as well.
2. Inequalities faced by elite athletes who play adaptive sports cause more off-court exhaustion than imaginable
The Olympic and Paralympic Games are not treated equally. Much of the push for equality comes from athletes. Is it fair for athletes to have to dedicate an unbelievable amount of time and energy to advocating for their sport? My team is the best team in the world and it is a fight for us to get the resources we need to be successful. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics was the first Games where Paralympians would receive equal pay for medals from the start of the Games. This huge growth came after years of athletes fighting for themselves –something I have witnessed in many of my own teammates.
For each event our team competes at, we name a 12-person roster. This roster is made up of National Team Athletes, but not everyone rosters for each event, making the team even more competitive.
3. Community is everything
Going into Tokyo, my team faced countless struggles. COVID scares, roster changes, and trip delays all took place for us during the week leading up to the Tokyo Paralympics. During this time, we had no choice but to lean on each other. Thankfully, we had invested so much time into building a community amongst ourselves that we were able to rely on each other to make it through. Once we arrived in Tokyo, we faced more COVID scares, a tough loss to our Paralympic rival, and complete exhaustion. Lucky for us, the Team USA community was beyond supportive and constantly went out of their way to check in on our team and support us in any way that they could, which was HUGE in helping us win gold.
4. Adaptive sports are undoubtedly challenging
When I first learned about sitting volleyball I had no interest because I was a standing volleyball player who didn’t “need” to play sitting down. When I first played the sport, I could not believe how difficult it was, even as someone with eight years of volleyball experience. When I came home, some of my standing volleyball teammates tried the sport with me and were also shocked at how challenging it was. This goes for all adaptive sports, and if you don’t know what I mean, here are some you need to check out.
Sled Hockey- Ice hockey except they sit down on skates and propel themselves quickly with their arms.
Wheelchair Rugby- Was originally called “murderball” and is like traditional rugby, except played in a wheelchair. The aggression is high and players run into each other with their wheelchairs, often knocking each other over.
Goalball – These athletes are completely blind and guard a goal that looks similar to a soccer goal.
Wheelchair Basketball – The same sport of basketball that we all know, except athletes compete in a wheelchair. This means that instead of running they use their shoulder and arm strength to constantly be pushing themselves while playing.
International event that runs alongside the Olympic Games. Elite athletes with a variety of disabilities come from all over the world to compete and represent their country. The Paralympics take place in the same country as the Olympic Games, use the same venues, and athletes stay in the same village. The name Paralympics is not interchangeable with Olympics, although the two are similar.
5. Nobody knows enough about the Paralympics
Since coming home from Tokyo, I have had to correct people from saying “Olympics” hundreds of times. The Paralympics do not get the same coverage as the Olympics and people don’t hear enough about them. I was one of these people, and that is why I didn’t know about sitting volleyball until sitting volleyball really found me. Raising awareness and getting people involved in adaptive sports can help with this. Adaptive sports are not just for people with disabilities. I would play sitting volleyball with my able-bodied teammates from home all of the time and they loved it! It was difficult and challenging, but also a fun way to be active. When able-bodied people participate in and learn about adaptive sports, they can help erase the negative stigma and spread the word so that people who have disabilities like me can get involved earlier. Creating opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in adaptive sports is incredibly important, and everyone, no matter their ability, can help.
6. You never know who is going to change your life
When I first met Elliot, Bill, or any of my teammates, I had no clue what kind of impact they would have on my life. Today, I love sitting volleyball, a sport I likely never would have found on my own.
7. It is important to give people a chance
In 2017 when I first met Bill Hamiter, I was not good at sitting volleyball. I did not know how to move, and I struggled through every drill, but Bill took a chance on me. At my first National Team Training Camp, I still wasn’t good, but each of my teammates took their time to get to know me and help me improve over the last four years and it paid off. We all had to start somewhere.
The agito means “I move” in Latin and it is a symbol of movement. The Paralympic logo is not the same as the Olympic rings, instead we use the agitos. This is visualized by three asymmetrical crescents, one red, one blue, and one green. You may recognize these from advertisements for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
8. Trust the process
My volleyball journey was not always easy. Over the last 13 years, I have been cut from teams, I have wanted to quit, and I have lost more games than I can keep track of. My road to making the Paralympic team was not always smooth but working hard, staying focused, and loving what I was doing helped it all pay off.
9. Adaptive sports are for EVERYONE
Adaptive sports are challenging whether you have a disability or not. No matter your ability, adaptive sports will give you a difficult workout. There was a 3-year period where I played both standing and sitting volleyball competitively and the more sitting volleyball I played, the better I got at the standing game. I was stronger, my ball control was better, and my volleyball IQ was higher than ever. Everyone can benefit from adaptive sports. By playing adaptive sports as an able-bodied person, you are also creating opportunities for people with disabilities and raising awareness for these sports. Without realizing it, you could be helping reach a future Paralympian.
10. When you have the opportunity to pursue something you love, DO IT
I always thought competitive volleyball would end for me after high school, but I loved the game and wanted to try to play for as long as I could. When I had the opportunity to play on the U.S. Women’s Sitting National Team, I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but once I started to love the game there was no looking back. When COVID made all of our schoolwork virtual, I had the opportunity to take my classes online and train full-time with my team in Oklahoma. Today, I get to travel the world with some of my best friends and play sitting volleyball, all because I was chasing a dream and doing what I loved.
- Emma Schieck