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Boston-Based Medical Chief Of Rio Paralympics: Everyone Has Athlete Potential

American Cheri Blauwet, center, is helped by officials while her teammate Amanda McGrory looks on after they crashed on the last lap of the Women's 5,000 meter T54 final during the Beijing Paralympic Games, Sept. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
American Cheri Blauwet, center, is helped by officials while her teammate Amanda McGrory looks on after they crashed on the last lap of the Women's 5,000 meter T54 final during the Beijing Paralympic Games, Sept. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
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Dr. Cheri Blauwet borrows one of her favorite slogans from the early days of Nike: "If you have a body, you are an athlete."

But she modifies it to be even more inclusive: "If you have a body, you have the potential to be an athlete."

"That really gets to the point that everyone can engage in physical activity," she says. "It's really just a matter of thinking about how to accommodate the individual and find ways for them to be successful."

Blauwet has been sensationally successful as an athlete herself, racking up seven Paralympic medals and two Boston Marathon wins as a wheelchair racer. Now, in this week's Paralympic Games in Rio, she's taking on a supervisory role, as chair of the games' Medical Committee.

When not overseeing the challenging logistics of international competitions, Blauwet is a physician in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, practicing at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

I originally got in touch with her for our "Magic Pill" podcast to ask a simple question: As many of us grapple with reasons — or excuses — not to exercise, what percent of the population really gets a pass and should not be physically active? Blauwet very roughly estimates that well under 10 percent get that pass.

With all the recent advances in technology and adaptive sports, she says, "as long as we think creatively about it, there really shouldn't be any excuse not to engage people of varying types of ability in exercise."

Blauwet was injured on the Iowa farm where she grew up, and began training for wheelchair racing in eighth grade.

"I did not have any vision of me being able to be an athlete," she said. "And that was because there were so few role models at that time of other people with disabilities, and even fewer of women with disabilities, who were successfully engaged in sports and physical activity."

Blauwet found a key role model in wheelchair racer Jean Driscoll, who won the Boston Marathon eight times.

The best role models are not necessarily Olympians or NBA players, Blauwet says. "I think it’s more about having role models that you can see part of yourself in, or you see how they’ve gotten to where they are and you think, 'Hey!'"

"It lights that spark in your head," she says, "and you say, 'Hey, maybe that’s achievable for me, too.'

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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