Travis Mohr imagesTravis Mohr - Paralympic Athlete and International Paralympic Committee CEO Xavier Gonzalez

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,” 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.”

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 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.

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 Games.

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 in Athens?

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 Games?

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!

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