GLASS CEILINGS? I’M HAVING NONE OF IT.

Tariq reads about a Paralympian’s story which puts a whole new perspective on both complaints of career obstacles and what one can achieve in the work place…

It’s now been 2 weeks since the dust, sand and green water settled on the Olympics in Rio. I love the Olympics – more than the World Cup, World Twenty20 and Ryder Cup combined. The politics and history are of course fascinating; Berlin 36, Mexico 68, Munich 72, the endless drugs scandals, the boycotts of 1980 and 1984. But it’s all about the sporting achievement above all else; I remember reading about Emil Zatopek in Helsinki 52 and have stared in awe at the TV to watch Carl Lewis, Maria Mutola, Haile Gebrselassie, Michael Johnson, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Mo Farah and countless others. Incredible feats on the highest stage, breaking records, overcoming all obstacles.

Now, we talk a lot in business about glass ceilings, the ‘old boys network’, insurmountable obstacles, lack of boardroom diversity – but while there’s still so much to do in all these areas, doors are opening faster, wider and in more places than ever before.  It’s not perfect, but it’s also never been easier in that respect. Spare a thought for those who decided to put their efforts into actually battering those doors down in the first place.

Which brings me to the Paralympics which starts on Wednesday 7th September. I realise there’s a whole other element to the idea of overcoming adversity, achieving incredible feats, and what it means to be a hero.

Take the example of Tatyana McFadden; she was born with spina bifida which left her paralyzed from the waist down. The first six years of her life were spent in a St Petersburg orphanage where she walked on her hands as no wheelchair was available. After being adopted by an American couple and moving to the US she brought a lawsuit against her school which directly led to the passing of a pioneering state-wide Disabilities Act requiring schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.

Take about adversity! Talk about a change maker! I suspect Tatyana’s personal experience of obstacles, glass ceilings and resistance-to-change might just out-do your own. It certainly does mine.

And then we get to the achievement bit;

at 15, she qualified for the 2004 Athens games in wheelchair racing as the youngest member of the USA track and field team and by the end of Beijing in 2008 she had collected 4 silver and 2 bronze medals in total. In London 2012 she won 3 golds and a bronze across 100m, 400m, 800m and 1500m.

By any measure it is an unbelievable record. However, much like all athletes and business people at the top of their fields, there was a hunger to achieve more and to further break down barriers:

2013 was an incredible year for her; at the world championships she won gold at every event from 100m to 5000m, and in that same year she won each of the Boston, Chicago, London and New York City marathons – the first person (able-bodied or otherwise) to win four of the major marathons in the same year. You might want to re-read that last paragraph to make sure you got it all.

In every year since she has consistently broken course records at major marathons and in 2016 won the London and Boston editions again. In Rio she is attempting to win the 100, 400, 800, 1500, 5,000, 4×400 metres and the marathon. The most amazing thing is that most commentators expect her to do it.

I could list athletes such as Zatopek and Farah as heroes of mine, and business leaders such as Bill Gates – but whether talking about sport or business, Tatyana McFadden is a true inspiration. She’s created opportunities which didn’t previously exist, opened doors which were once bolted shut and has achieved feats many probably thought impossible. She has devoted herself to both her own game-changing sporting success and pioneering positive change for those around her. Just one of those is too much for most of the rest of us. A quote of hers sums things up perfectly:

“Sports is my passion, paving access for others is my purpose.

What’s more, hers is just one example of what will be many amazing back stories across the Paralympics in Rio. I’ll be staring at the TV in awe once again at some new heroes.

 

 



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