Wednesday will bring the opening of the London 2012 Paralympic Games (with Prince Harry set to attend on Friday, his first public appearance since his Vegas photo scandal). Baroness Grey-Thompson, an 11-time gold medal-winning Paralympian athlete, hailed the sports event at a special St. Paul's Cathedral service last weekend for showing "the world what extraordinary athletes can do, who happen to have a disability."
Grey-Thompson expressed particular delight in how these Games "inspire a generation to think differently. I'm proud to see that, as I walk around London, posters of Paralympians adorn the streets. Paralympians are household names. The public care if they win or lose."
No stranger to major international tournaments, Nick Springer is among the Americans competing. The leader of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team (and a Hall of Famer in the sport), the 27-year-old is going for his ninth consecutive gold medal after already claiming a Paralympic, two World Cup, two Western Hemisphere and three Canada Cup trophies.
'Rugby Player' Is 'My Identity'After contracting the bacterial infection meningococcal meningitis as a 14-year-old at summer camp in 1999, Nick awoke from a medically induced coma to find that both his arms and legs had been amputated. He lost his legs from the knees, down, and his arms at mid-forearm.
With determination, a sense of humor, and a loving family, he moved his life forward, becoming the top defender in his sport, as a tribute in September's Vanity Fair testifies.
"The thing I realized," Springer told a group of students the same age he was when his life changed forever, "is that, unfortunately, bad things do happen, and you just have to look past it and laugh and say, 'You know what? It's funny. I had no control over what happened. I had no control over losing my limbs. But I can control what I do afterwards.' "
What Springer did immediately afterward was return to his school and even to the summer camp. Graduating from regular ice hockey to sled hockey, he made his way to wheelchair rugby and the United States Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby (known as Murderball) Team.
"I'm a rugby player," Springer told NBC Sports this summer, as he was training for London. "People ask me what I do, and I say I'm a rugby player and I represent my country. That's my identity. That's who I am."
Of his sport, he said, "Not only is it an outlet, but it gives you a goal."
Beijing Victory, Family TragedySpringer first made the team in June 2005 and competed in the Beijing Paralympics. Tragically, his mother Nancy died of liver cancer the day after he won the gold medal there.
"I was standing there in China, and I was watching him, and I was so hoarse when they put the medal on him," his father Gary told New York's Lower Hudson Valley Journal News. "I was so proud. It was one of the greatest moments. But I was also thinking that the games were over. And now I have to go tell him that we have to leave in the morning because his mother is in a coma."
For Gary and his children – Nick has a sister, Olivia – the family philosophy, as it had always been, was that this is the new normal. They moved forward.
Today, Nick lives independently and drives his own car, dividing his time between New York and Phoenix, where he plays rugby for the Phoenix Fusion. Two years ago he graduated from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he works as a spokesperson for the National Meningitis Association (of which his mother was a co-founder). Springer is also currently consulting with Novartis on behalf of the need for meningitis vaccination.
"I was given a ten percent chance of survival," Springer says of what happened to him at age 14. Since then, and moving forward into the 2012 Paralympics, he has not only survived. He and his indomitable spirit have thrived.