The Paralympic Games are the second largest sporting event in the world, after the Olympics, and begin August 29th. 4,000 elite disabled athletes will compete in 20 sports. Many of the sports are familiar, but others — like boccia and goalball — are unique to the Paralympics.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The second-largest sporting event in the world gets underway in London next week. The Paralympic Games will feature more than 4,000 elite athletes with disabilities in sports both familiar, like swimming and ping-pong, and less familiar, like boccia and goalball.
Some competitors like John Register switched from conventional sports to the Paralympics after an injury or an accident. John Register is now the associate director for Community and Military Programs for the United States Olympic Committee, and joins us from London.
Nice to have you with us today.
JOHN REGISTER: Oh, it's great to be here. Top of the afternoon to you.
CONAN: Now, you were a world-class hurdler when you had an accident back in 1994. Did you think, at that point, your life as a competitive athlete was over?
REGISTER: I did. I knew nothing about the Paralympic Games at that point in life. I was trying to make the Olympic team, and the devastation of the injury, causing the amputation, really put me on to what most people think about - especially our injured veterans - and that is: You know, what's my life like now? You know, who am I? What's my identity? So sports is really not the first thing that a person thinks about. It's really getting back to a healthy and active lifestyle and trying to put the pieces back together.
CONAN: And when did you start swimming?
REGISTER: I started swimming for physical therapy right after the injury. My physical therapist suggested that. I moved and got another job in Washington, D.C., working for the Community and Family Support Center in - there for the U.S. Army. And I was told to, you know, come in a little bit later to work and just try to work out a little bit more to get myself back to that lifestyle.
And I swam. I did that, had a coach, and the coach was very phenomenal. His name was Mark, and Mark did a phenomenal job of getting me in shape. We were not trying to make a Paralympic team, by the way. We were just trying to get back in shape.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And when did you realize there were Paralympic Games and realize that you were capable of competing?
REGISTER: There were two people. You know, Mark was definitely one that saw the opportunity there, but my coach, my running coach, Remi Korchemny from Castro Valley, California, was the other one that noticed the Paralympic Games and said, hey, you should focus your direction and maybe try and make this Paralympic team.
So I put a mark on the wall to try to make the Paralympic swim trials - not the Paralympic Games, because I thought, you know, there was no way I was going to swim six seconds faster than what I needed to swim to make the team. But I went to Indianapolis, Indiana. I qualified for the Paralympic swim trials, and I swam .01 seconds slower than the time needed to actually qualify for the team.
But what I didn't realize was that as I made the flip-turn in the 100-meter freestyle at the other end of the pool, that time of hitting the wall on the 50 was fast enough to actually make the Paralympic team. And so as I left Indianapolis, not knowing I had made the team, I was called on Monday morning when I was back at my desk and - by Coach Cal from Catholic University, saying: Why did you leave? (unintelligible)
I said, well, I didn't make the team, sir. And he said no, you idiot. You actually made the Paralympic team. We picked you up for a relay.
REGISTER: I was like: You mean I was going as a 400-meter hurdler for the Olympic Games, and now I'm going as an African-American swimmer? Are you kidding me? So I felt the twists and turns of that, and it was really quite comical.
But, you know, the Paralympic Games for athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments are the second-largest sporting event in the world, and there are a remarkable, remarkable stories that are here for every single athlete.
CONAN: And some people might think for a moment that these are somehow, well, second-class, that this is, you know, fobbed off.
REGISTER: Yeah, I think, you know, for those individuals, once you understand what it takes - you know, because a disability is not what we overcome as - that someone sees as an injury, right? My disability is not my amputation. My disability might be the perceptions I take from other people on the amputation of what I'm capable of.
And that's just not - you know, that's what we have to overcome. When you see the Paralympic Games, you really see any one of these individuals represents a multitude of people with disabilities across the United States - and even across the world now - and shows what is actually possible when you turn the coin on the other side and show the capabilities of those with perceived disabilities. So it's a really great event to watch.
You watch a man run 10.85 with one leg in the 100-meter dash, and you realize that, you know what? Most Americans, most people in the world can't run 10.85 with two legs.
CONAN: If you're a competitive athlete with a physical disability or a visual impairment, call and tell us what we don't know about your event or your preparation. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a band of improbable heroes squabbles, quips and saves the day. The hero returns from exile. You may have seen those movies this past summer, or almost any other summer. Nominate your favorite by email. The address again is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Still with us, John Register, associate director of Community and Military Programs for the United States Olympic Committee and a four-time All-American athlete.
How many times did you participate in the Paralympic Games?
REGISTER: So, that's a great question. I participated twice. The first time was, of course, in swimming in Atlanta, and I was like - a little like a fish out of water. The second games was in 2000. I returned to the track after seeing a long-jumper on the long-jump runway in Atlanta, and I never saw an above-the-knee amputee run before. So that was a new experience.
And as that gentleman came down the long-jump runway with the whole crowd cheering for him and clapping for him, he leapt into the air, and at the apex, the height of his flight, his artificial leg flew off. I'd never seen that before.
REGISTER: He landed in one place, his artificial leg landed in another place. And the whole crowd went dead silent. You know, you could hear a pin drop amongst the stadium. And he turned back with all eyes on him, and he looked at the long-jump official and yelled out for everybody to hear: So where are you going to measure my jump from, from right here or where the artificial leg landed up there?
And I said that's a brilliant attitude to have. And so I had one - another leg made for running about a year after I saw that, and I had that epiphany. And a year after I had tied the American record in the long jump, and a year after that, I was back on the track in Sydney, Australia, 10:30 in the morning, October the 23rd, six jumps and finished up silver medal in the long jump. And it was just a culmination of my whole athletic career. It was brilliant.
REGISTER: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Now there are some sports in the Paralympic Games that are not as familiar as either swimming or the long jump.
REGISTER: Yes, and those sports, I think in your intro, teaser-intro, are goalball, and goalball is for those that are visually impaired and totally blind...
CONAN: And we're going to have a goalball player on the program a bit later to explain how that works. But...
REGISTER: OK. So I won't spoil the thunder on that one. So he can do that. And then there's boccia, which is another sport. And that's - it's really like lawn bowling. And so for those with more disabilities or capabilities, that sport is played for them. And they do it with an - some with an attendant that helps them just get the ball into the proper position. They roll the ball down a track with their mouth, and they just try to knock out the other opponent's ball that's in front of them.
And it's really quite phenomenal to watch, because you just don't think about that, of a person that has that type of disability being able to do something. But you recognize or realize that these individuals are very capable, as well as competent.
So, again, it just challenges us to expand our thinking. I think another sport that is just incredible is rugby. And we're talking about wheelchair rugby, which is also called murderball. And so if you can take demolition derby, for all you race car fans that are out there, and look at the smash-'em-up cars, we take - these athletes take their wheelchairs and soup them up as demolition wheelchairs, and they are just rocketing into each other.
This game is played with quadriplegics, so those that have impairments on the four limbs, hands and legs. And because of that, they will play with a - more like a volleyball, and they will use their arms and limbs to push their wheelchairs into each other and into - to try to score goals.
So it's an incredible thing to watch. The crashes are just great on the court, and you see people flying out of their chairs and diving on people. It's really quite remarkable. And so we will watch the USA team try to defend its gold medal, the one they won in China.
CONAN: In track-and-field events, are all disabilities created equal? In other words, if somebody is visually impaired, is that the same as somebody who's got - a double amputee?
REGISTER: Oh, that's another great question, and so that leads us into classification. And so in the classification for the Paralympic Games, like individuals will run against or compete against like individuals. So, for example, I am what's called a 42 - T for the track classification. The four stands for the amputee classification, and two represents the level of disability within side of that class.
So you have 41s all the way through 49s, and I will only compete, or theoretically only compete against 42 classes. When you look at somebody like the sprinter that was just in the Olympic Games, Oscar Pistorius, he's a 45. And he's a 43, and will compete against 44s. And the 44s are below-knee amputees.
So they compete, and they combine a classification. And so that's very interesting that you would say that, because the blind will always run against the blind athletes, and the amputees will run against the amputee athletes, and the spinal cord injuries will run or push their chairs against the other folks that are within side of their disability.
You have to go down one step further from that, too. So with those individuals who are, say, the wheelchair-class users, you - depending upon where the level of your injury is, the spinal cord break, will depend upon what class you are in within side of that category, the one through the nine class inside of that function.
So the wheelchair classification is the five category, so T for track, five for the functionality of - I'm sorry five for wheelchairs, and then the functionality will be next number.
CONAN: I see.
REGISTER: You have your T54 or your T56 or your T58s. And the higher the number, the least amount of disability. The lower the number, the greater amount of disability. So that's - it gets very confusing real quick. But I think for your listening audience, when you look at the 100 meters, men and women, in the Olympic Games, you see Usain Bolt won the 100 meters, and you see the young lady that won the 100 meters in the Olympics, and you have a male-female category.
So in the Paralympics, it's so large, you have the blind 100 meters and - for the male and female. And then you have the blind - total blind, then you have - which are - what we would call the B1 classification. Then you have B2, which have some sight, and you have your B3s, which have some sight, but just are legally blind.
CONAN: I see.
REGISTER: So you have all these classifications, and then you have - each one of them has a 100-meter final, plus men and women. So that's six medals that are - six medals - gold medals that are up for grabs. So then you move to the next class, your wheelchair class, and you move to your amputee class, and you move to your cerebral palsy class, and then you can see how it gets very large. So 100-meter finals is - it's going to take all afternoon. So it's really become very large.
CONAN: We're talking about the Paralympics. One thing we don't often think about with Olympic sports is spare parts. There's a huge technical operation going on behind the scenes at the Paralympics. We'll talk with the head of that crew in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Earlier this month, Oscar Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. Next week, when the Paralympic Games kick off, he returns to the same London stadium, this time hoping to win more gold than Usain Bolt.
We're talking today about the games of the 2012 Paralympics and the experience of athletes who compete in those games. If you're a competitive athlete with a physical disability or visual impairment, call and tell us what we don't know about your event or your preparation, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Our guest is John Register, associate director of Community and Military Programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee. He competed in the Paralympics in 1996 and 2000, earned a silver medal in the long jump after setting the American long jump record.
Let's get a caller in on the conversation, and Candace(ph) is with us from Truckee in California.
CANDACE: Hi, Neal. Hi, John.
REGISTER: Hey, how are you doing, Ann(ph)?
CANDACE: I'm good, I'm good. You asked about people that had had experiences in the Paralympic Games, and I competed in nine Paralympic Games and worked for Team USA in Vancouver. And this year I'm going to be going as a journalist to report on the games for the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation.
And one of the things that I'm hoping to get across to my readers and the people out there is the background of the Paralympic Games and also that these are highly competitive, determined athletes that really want to succeed and win. And that's no different than any other athlete.
CONAN: And if you're calling from Truckee, I assume - am I right to say this was Winter Paralympics?
CANDACE: Well, actually, Neal, I was in summer and winter. I was a wheelchair racer in the summer and Alpine ski racer and cross-country ski racer in the winter.
CONAN: And how did you do?
CANDACE: I won 12 medals total. Yeah, I was very successful.
CONAN: That's - that's fantastic.
CANDACE: It was a great career, and now I'm really working towards the advocacy part, to be able to share, you know, the Paralympic experience with the world so that people will know that no matter what happens in their lives, they always have options.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and good luck with your new career.
CANDACE: Thank you, and I'll see you over there, John.
REGISTER: Thanks, Ann(ph), and I'm looking forward to it.
CANDACE: Yes, bye.
CONAN: Many of the athletes who compete in the Paralympic Games are outfitted with some pretty complicated equipment, from prosthetic legs to high-tech wheelchairs. Through the course of competition, that equipment can take a beating. Ken Hurst heads up the technical team responsible for taking care of repairs. He joins us by phone from the Olympic Village in London. Ken Hurst, nice to have you with us today.
KEN HURST: Hey, hi, good evening, gentlemen, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks. Can you tell us about your setup there?
HURST: Yeah, (unintelligible) and we're working really hard. We've been working for the last two days. We've done over 200 repairs so far, from - mainly it's checking over personal equipment and the athletic equipment that they're using, but yeah, we've had a wide variety of work in across the door so far.
CONAN: This can be pretty specialized work, no?
HURST: Oh yeah, we've got some great guys from all over the world, and ladies, by the way. We don't separate our technicians at all. We put a really good team. And it's not just the technical ability. I think what's been apparent over the last two days is the amount of different languages that people can speak, which has been an absolute - it's been a real bonus in the workshop to have so many people communicating really very closely with the athletes as they come in.
So the repairs are really effective, and it's really just what they want. So communication's been great, yeah.
CONAN: When you're out at the venues, is there, you know, somebody participating in the high jump or something like that, is there any time limit for repairs?
HURST: Some of the events are. It depends - the wheelchair tennis is a little bit like that. It can be a little bit competitive on times. And certainly in the road races and things like that, yeah, you're up against a clock to effect all the repairs, that's for sure. We've got a little bit more time in the other events, which makes it sometimes a little bit easier, but nonetheless none less stressful for the athlete concerned, that's for sure.
CONAN: John Register, our other guest, was describing the wheelchair rugby as murderball, as sort of a demolition derby. I assume those wheelchairs can take quite a beating.
HURST: Oh, absolutely, and this is why we have a good team of welders there, as well as wheelchair technicians for all the bearings that can go wrong on the wheelchairs. But the welders are our main support team there, that's for sure.
HURST: Yeah, the chairs (unintelligible) very robust, but high-impact sports, and the chairs break, where all the tubes connect into each other. So yeah, these guys and ladies are very, very aggressive and, yeah, high-tech, high-welding repairs are required.
CONAN: Well, good luck, and have a good time.
HURST: OK, well, thanks very much for having me on the show, and good luck. OK? We'll speak again sometime.
CONAN: Sure. Ken Hurst is technical director for the Ottobock International Leadership Team at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. He joined us by phone from London, where he's going to be heading the crew that's going to be making repairs.
Let's see if we can go next to Aaron(ph), Aaron's on the line with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
AARON: Hi, I am a disabled athlete. I have cerebral palsy, and I did not make it to the Paralympic Games this year, and that's - I guess that's my experience so far, is the disappointment of not making the London team.
CONAN: And how close did you get?
AARON: Qualification procedures are kind of complicated. I've - it's hard to say exactly how close I got, but it was three years of full-time training and didn't quite make it. I was fairly close.
CONAN: And again, your event?
AARON: Paralympic cycling.
CONAN: Cycling. And so this is something you've been doing - I presume you have a life outside of that and a job?
AARON: I did not have a job for about three years. I lived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And after not making the team, I am now transitioning into having a job but also trying to balance work and training, because I would like to go to Rio.
CONAN: And that's going to be where the next Paralympics will be held.
CONAN: And so you're determined to see if you can make that team?
AARON: Absolutely. I am actually on my way to an open category race in Tennessee this weekend. So it's about a six-hour drive. But just planning on racing and training as much as I can between now and Rio and looking for a different outcome at the next qualification event.
CONAN: Well, good luck. Better luck next time.
AARON: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And here's an email, and John, I think this is a question for you: I think it's time to combine the Paralympics and the Olympic Games, writes an emailer named John. It would be great to see the Paralympic athletes marching with the regular athletes. Oscar Pistorius was the most heartwarming image of the past Olympics. Imagine multiplying that 4,000 times. What do you think?
REGISTER: I think that's a great idea. It's a little bit logistically of a - when you're looking at the two largest games in the world, it's a huge monster. You just don't understand how big this thing is. And there's more media here than there's actually athletes. So it's kind of crazy.
But my own thought on the subject is that the games do one of - they do a couple things, and I think the first thing, the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games are both these great entities, and to combine the games means that it's a huge logistical (unintelligible). I just kind of started talking about, earlier, about the 100-meter dash.
CONAN: Sure, it can take all day, yeah.
REGISTER: It can take all day, and it just goes on for a long time. And I think that the structure we have it now, the separation of the two, I like to look at the Olympic Games as the test event for the Paralympics.
So the Olympics get to look at all the things that go wrong behind the scenes, and they smooth everything out for the Paralympics. And we get the chance to look at, individually, without the - heroes can be made from the Paralympic athletes because it's really a more tangible games.
I mean, you get the chance to meet the heroes, the Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and everything on the Olympics, and you meet them on television. At the Paralympic Games, you really get a chance to have a much deeper dialogue with an individual.
For example, when I was in Athens, Greece, I was able to meet one of the volunteers, and this lady was pretty much in tears because for the first time with the Paralympic Games, her grandmother was able to actually get out of the house because Athens had made the train system accessible. And then the venues were accessible. So she could actually get to some of the events that were going on.
So before this time, there was - nothing was going on with that. And so the Paralympic Games brings a specific light onto a city and onto, you know, the quote-unquote disabilities with - inside of a community or inside of one world, because you have - you have to remember that people that have these perceived disabilities also have money to spend. And if your city is open to these individuals who can come over and spend money, then that really opens up this whole economic venture.
So people are getting on airplanes, they're going to see the sights, they're going to visit, and it really impacts on a great level. The second thing I think it does, it allows people to see these athletes for who they are, like some of the callers, like Ann(ph) said, and like Aaron said. And those - they were - those are highly - unless you really get to a games, you just don't see it on that level.
You begin - we always tend to think of somebody with a disability as, oh, sometimes poor them, or I'm glad I'm not in that situation. (unintelligible) outside, that's kind of like the elephant in the room.
But when you see somebody that is capable in, say, a sporting event, and they're doing something incredible on the track or incredible on the basketball court, they hit a three-point shot, then it begins to change your mindset about what other capabilities are actually possible.
So then we can forecast that out - and it really works very well - as, well, you know, you have somebody like a Cheri Blauwet, who is a phenomenal wheelchair athlete that was on our Paralympic team. And her job, her profession right now, she's an M.D. She's a doctor. Yes, she uses a wheelchair. So how - well, how did that happen? Well, all she really needs to do is when she's operating on somebody, just please lower the table a little bit for me.
REGISTER: I actually have the competency, and I can still do the work. Just make an accommodation for me. And that begins to look at that HR person who sees a person in a wheelchair who comes through the door, an amputee or somebody with cerebral palsy or blind. And instead of saying, can they do the work? They just look at the resume and see what's been done, and then hire that person because of it.
We see time and time again like a company like Walgreens, for example. They hire, actually, people like - with disabilities and have a higher production rate than other companies that do not. It's amazing, once you just change your mindset and just get over a perceived disability in our own fears, and really just put folks like us to work.
CONAN: We mentioned earlier we're going to be speaking with a goalball player. Joining us now is Donte Mickens, a member of the U.S. men's goalball team, a two-time Paralympian. He's with us by phone from Boca Raton in Florida. Nice to have you with us.
DONTE MICKENS: How's it going, Neal?
CONAN: I'm good. What's goalball?
MICKENS: Goalball is a high-energy, high - a very intense sport that was invented shortly after World War II to help veterans who were blinded in combat with their rehabilitation, and also providing them with some recreation as well. The sport, it's a volley sport. So the ball is traveling back and forth across of a - across the court. It's a three-on-three type of sport. There are reserves as well, but it's three players on each team at a time.
And the object is to defend your net from a ball that weighs about three-and-a-half pounds, three-and-a-half to four pounds and, you know, on the international level, Paralympic level, is flying upwards of 50 miles an hour. So you're trying to put yourself in between that ball and your net that you're trying to defend.
CONAN: And we mentioned categories. I understand in goalball, everyone is blindfolded, so there's just one category.
MICKENS: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, that's one of the amazing things about goalball, is that it eliminates all barriers regarding vision. It is intended for those who are visually impaired or blind. And so all of the athletes wear blindfolds. So no matter how much sight someone has or doesn't have, everyone is on the same plane with regard to vision.
CONAN: And if everybody's blindfolded, how do you tell where the ball is?
MICKENS: The ball has three bells inside of it, so you're listening for the sound of the ball to track it, to know where it is on the other - on the opposing team's side of the court. And then when they roll it - I say rolling, but the ball is coming, again, you know, around 50 miles an hour - international level.
And so you're trying to track that ball, and then block it with your body, everything from the tips of your hands to the tips of your feet. So you're actually lying on the floor in a parallel position to block the ball with your body. So, you're - you know, it's definitely a very high-impact type of sport.
CONAN: And how does a goalball team practice? I mean, you guys - again, everybody's got to have a job and make a living, right?
MICKENS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you know, it takes a lot of support. It takes a lot of support. You know, my employer has been very supportive as far as allowing me to travel and train at the Olympic Training Center in New York and in Colorado. And so, you know, it takes, you know, coaches that are willing to travel as well.
So I started here at NCCI down in Boca Raton a couple of years ago. And when I first came on, I let them know that I was a Paralympian. And I just wanted to make sure that, you know, full disclosure, everything was going to be, you know, cool as far as traveling and training. And they were absolutely supportive of that.
So it takes a lot of support from family, friends. And a lot of my teammates have families. They have kids. They have wives. So having support from, you know, their, you know, their home base is very crucial to, you know, being able to travel, to, you know, to get together at a practice.
CONAN: Donte Mickens, we should mention, was part of the U.S. men's goalball team that won bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Congratulations on that.
MICKENS: Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it. There was a real funny story, but that is in Greece. We were preparing for a very crucial game, a quarterfinal game that we needed to, you know, to win to progress and move on. And I had actually left my jersey. I was, you know, getting ready for the game. I left my jersey back at the Paralympic Village.
And, you know, as soon as I found out, you know, I immediately, you know, told my coaches and team leader. And, you know, they got in contact with our security liaison at the time, and he got on the horn with his cell phone and also email. And he actually coordinated with the Athens police, who then went to the Olympic Village, in our living quarters.
And we had three sets of jersey, so they grabbed every jersey that they can find. And it was in different places. People had it in lockers, some had it in bags, but they found every jersey they could find. They bagged them all up. And the venue was about 35, 45 minutes away from, you know, the Paralympic Village.
So lights blazing, horns, everything. They - it all - you know, they sped through Athens to try and get me that jersey prior to us starting, because if I had walked in the venue without a jersey, I actually - based on the rules of goalball, I wouldn't have been able to compete.
CONAN: Would have been disqualified.
MICKENS: And sure enough, you know, literally as we were walking in, the jersey comes through the door, and they're tossing it to me. And, you know, so I was able to compete and fortunate to contribute two goals to a very crucial game that we had coming up and, you know, led to us eventually taking home the bronze medal.
CONAN: Well, we hope you'll - your goalball team will be back competing for the gold in Rio.
MICKENS: Absolutely. I'm looking forward to helping my team, you know, you know, bring back the gold to the U.S. We have a very, very successful women's U.S. team. They actually are the defending gold medalists from Beijing. So they will be over in London this year. So we hope to have two gold medals in Rio.
CONAN: Donte Mickens, thanks very much for your time.
MICKENS: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Donte Mickens joined us on the phone from Boca Raton. And we'd also like to thank John Register who's been our guest this entire program. He's the associate director of community and military programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Thanks very much for your time.
REGISTER: Thanks, Neal. I really appreciate it.
CONAN: When we come back after a short break, we're going to be talking about how old superheroes never die. They just get new outfits.
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BRAD BIRD: (as Edna "E" Mode) No cape.
CONAN: Murray Horwitz will join us, cape and all. Call to nominate your favorite band-of-heroes flick or the movie about a hero's return from exile or obscurity: 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.