1. Opinion

Column: My Paralympic blues

Ezekiel Fragnan and Jessica Vitorino participate in the Paralympic torch relay last week in Brasilia. The Paralympic Games open Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro.
Ezekiel Fragnan and Jessica Vitorino participate in the Paralympic torch relay last week in Brasilia. The Paralympic Games open Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro.
Published Sep. 2, 2016

The woman to my left wants to know what happened to me.

We're in a cycling studio, where for one hour we've been pedaling away, dripping sweat, with disco lights strobing across the spandex-clad instructor at the front of the class.

I recite my familiar script while struggling to unbuckle a heavy shoe. I lost my leg at 4; I wear a prosthesis; no, it wasn't cancer; yes, it goes all the way up; no, it doesn't hurt; no, I don't know that woman who was on Dancing With the Stars, or the other lady on the other show who tap danced and was maybe married to a Beatle; and oh, how great that you had an uncle who wore a wooden leg who had a good sense of humor in spite of all that; yeah, bummer about that famous handsome athlete with no legs who killed his girlfriend. "Gives them a bad name," the woman says, shaking her head.

I'm used to fielding these questions, used to being lumped in as one of "them," although I find tap dancing irritating and have zero in common with a South African male double amputee professional sprinter convicted of murder. I'm so practiced at telling my story that I anticipate my cycle mate's response before I hear it. "Well, you're an inspiration! If you can do it, no excuse for me!"

My new buddy presses her hand to her heart before raising it high in the air for a sweaty fist bump. I slap on my widest fake smile, manage to yank off my cleated spinning shoe, and say, "Woot!" as a way of signaling conversation over but even as I do I have a sinking feeling that I'm about to be having more conversations like this everywhere — or at least more than usual. It's Paralympics time again.

The Games begin in Rio on Wednesday, which means that the bodies of disabled athletes will soon be beaming into living rooms everywhere, and that for nearly two weeks we will not be described as "the disabled," as if we were part of a misshapen, drooling horde à la The Walking Dead. No, we will be overcomers. We will be inspirations. We will be superstars. We will be heroes! We may even have theme songs.

I am not a Paralympian. Like all the other cyclists, I'm here because I have fitness goals. I buy magazines that promise "Your Best Body Yet!" I cycle because I'm vain. I like my miniskirts. But more than that, as a person with a disability, I'm playing the long game. This body is the only one I've got, and I need to take care of it.

During the 12 days of the Paralympic Games, it will seem that we have sprung directly from the technological imagination of the 21st century. Those iron feet! Those wheelchair athletes and their superbuff biceps! But after the medals are awarded we will retreat underground again — into normalcy, I guess, which is in fact a kind of oblivion when you have a body that is either an object of pity or valorized as "super" in order to be acceptable. It seems that, temporarily, able-bodied people make a virtue of their sudden awareness of disabled athletes. Truth is, we've been here all along.

I have been and have considered myself an athlete since the day I learned to ski at age 6 at the Winter Park Adaptive Ski Program in Winter Park, Colo., up until now, when I'm in the process of shaving minutes off my mile time. I'm tall; I like basketball. If I'd had two real legs I would have kept up with ballet. But more than anything else, I like to be challenged physically, and I especially love dark, sweaty rooms where people scream "Go team!" or "Mind over matter!"

This would have been true, I believe, had I not lost my leg and lived and moved in a prosthesis for 38 years. But it's true now, and physical activity is a big — if not defining — part of my everyday life. It helps me keep up with my toddler, it makes me feel sexy for my sexy husband. Being athletic makes me happy. I don't want or need a medal for that.

My story is not inspirational; difficult at times, deeply sad at times, because I'm a flawed human being living in a flawed world, one in which women are often judged by their appearance above all else. I have not overcome my disability, and I never will. I will live with it for the rest of my life, and some days are better than others. Mine is an ordinary story to which anyone in any body should be able to relate.

But, as is so often the case, a nonnormative body must be made to be extraordinary, or what the sociologist Rebecca Chopp called "super-cripples": people who reach a level of physical performance that makes them seem "normal," their bodies palatable, acceptably different. People with disabilities can't be just people — a boundary between "us" and "them" must be established, if only to avoid the difficult truth that disability in some form will almost certainly touch their lives in the future.

So although I will be watching those disabled athletes earn their props on the big stage, I also admit to being weary of having to get up on my own daily stage and field some embarrassing, prurient and occasionally soul-crushing questions. I'm an ordinary athlete living an ordinary life. I just happen to be doing it in a body many people might misunderstand, a body that is a source of pride and of shame, and sometimes, like all of our bodies on a good day, extraordinary.

Emily Rapp Black is the author of "Poster Child: A Memoir" (when she was 6, she was chosen as the poster child for the March of Dimes) and "The Still Point of the Turning World." She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. © 2016 New York Times