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Meet the Paralympians with Florida ties competing in Tokyo

These athletes will represent the Sunshine State next week, with more than half making their Paralympic debuts.
Paralympian cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Sereda is a retired U.S. Army veteran who will compete in the 16th Summer Paralympic Games Aug. 24-Sep. 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Paralympian cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Sereda is a retired U.S. Army veteran who will compete in the 16th Summer Paralympic Games Aug. 24-Sep. 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 18
Updated Aug. 20

TAMPA — The Olympics may be over, but the competition is just getting underway for the 240 athletes who will represent Team USA at the Paralympic Games next week in Tokyo.

Of the American athletes competing, several have Florida ties, including eight who will be making their Paralympic debuts.

The Paralympics will be televised across NBC, NBCSN and the Olympic Channel Tuesday (for opening ceremonies) through Sept. 5, between 9 p.m.-9 a.m. EST. The full schedule can be found online at www.olympics.com/tokyo.

Meet some of the athletes from Florida who will represent the United States.

Beatrice de Lavalette, 22, Lake Worth Beach, equestrian

Beatrice de Lavalette clinched her place on the Paralympic dressage team at the Perrigo Tryon Summer Dressage CPEDI3 competition in Mill Spring, N.C., in June.
Beatrice de Lavalette clinched her place on the Paralympic dressage team at the Perrigo Tryon Summer Dressage CPEDI3 competition in Mill Spring, N.C., in June. [ LESLIE POTTER, LESLIE POTTER/US EQUESTRIAN | Palm Beach Post ]

By the time de Lavalette was old enough to walk, she was in a saddle riding horses in France. By 12, she joined a dressage and hunter seat equitation team. At 17, she lost both of her legs in the Brussels Airport terrorist bombing when she happened to be standing next to a bomber while waiting in line in March 2016. Five months later, she was back on her mare, Delegada X, after spending the first four months in the intensive care unit. In April 2017, she competed in her first para-equestrian show. She will be making her Paralympic Games debut.

Terry Hayes, 63, North Fort Myers, wheelchair fencing

Hayes is in her first Paralympics after placing ninth in team saber at the World Championship. She ranks sixth in saber and foil and seventh in epee in the U.S. She’s been fencing since 2016 after getting diagnosed with Primary Cerebellar Degeneration, a progressive brain disease, and becoming a full-time wheelchair user. She Googled wheelchair sports and found a video of Lauryn DeLuca fencing in at the 2016 Paralympic Games. At 63, she will be the oldest Category B fencer in Tokyo.

Related: Video Interview with Terry Hayes

Kyle Coon, 29, Jacksonville, triathlon

Kyle Coon, right, is competing in his first Paralympic Games.
Kyle Coon, right, is competing in his first Paralympic Games. [ KENJIRO MATSUO | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Coon is set for his first Paralympics after finishing first at the World Triathlon Para Series in May in Yokohama, Japan. He lost his vision at age 7 due to a rare form of eye cancer, but it didn’t stop him from hiking the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu in 2006 or Mt. Kilimanjaro the following year at age 15. In 2018, he raced on a tandem bike from Oceanside, Calif. to Annapolis, Md. in a week’s time (seven days, 15 hours). He’s also the first totally blind person to finish an Ironman-branded triathlon, completing Ironman Arizona (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) in less than 11 hours in 2018.

Nicole ‘Nicky’ Nieves, 31, Kissimmee, sitting volleyball

Nicky Nieves of the United States spikes the ball during the women's sitting volleyball preliminaries Pool B match against China at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Nicky Nieves of the United States spikes the ball during the women's sitting volleyball preliminaries Pool B match against China at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [ YANG LEI C | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Nieves began playing sports at age 10, after her family moved to Kissimmee from Queens, N.Y. Despite being born without a left hand, she competed on the court for volleyball, as well as track and field and cheerleading. During her senior year at Gateway High School, she was named conference player of the year. She held the U.S. to a gold medal in sitting volleyball at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Luis Puertas, 34, Orlando, track and field

Luis Puertas, competes in the men's 1,500 meter above the knee race during Warrior Games  track & field events in 2013 at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Luis Puertas, competes in the men's 1,500 meter above the knee race during Warrior Games track & field events in 2013 at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. [ LARRY CLOUSE | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Puertas is another Paralympics first-timer, placing fourth in the 200-meter race at the World Championships in 2019. He was stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, with the U.S. Army in the fall of 2006 when his convoy was hit by an explosive device. He lost both of his legs after being trapped beneath the door of the armored vehicle he was traveling in. He took up para-running the following year after trying a number of different rehabilitation techniques, including para-swimming.

Emma Rose Ravish, 21, Alva, archery

Ravish will be making her Paralympics debut in recurve archery after winning a silver medal at the 2021 Para Pan American Championships. She lives by the mantra, “God don’t make no junk.” Before she was born, her leg growth was stunted through her biological mother’s alcohol and drug use while pregnant. Four days after her birth in Oregon, she moved to Florida with her new mother. She began playing sports in middle school but has been drawn to archery since 2010-11, when she competed at a camp in North Carolina.

Monica Sereda, 54, St. Petersburg, para-cycling

Sereda is the second-oldest Floridian competing for Team USA. She retired from the Army in 2011 after 24 years of service but sustained neck, back and brain injuries in an automobile accident a year later. She began cycling in 2014 and was invited to her first para-cycling camps at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo, two years later. In 2017, She began racing internationally in 2017 and will compete in her first Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Brad Snyder, 37, St. Petersburg, paratriathlon

Brad Snyder won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle at the 2017 Paralympic Games in Rio.
Brad Snyder won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle at the 2017 Paralympic Games in Rio.

Snyder, a seven-time Paralympic medalist in swimming, says it’s not about the medals, it’s about the journey. Which is why the St. Petersburg native and Baltimore, Maryland, resident wants another shot at the Paralympics, this time in a new event. Snyder has competed in two previous Paralympics (London in 2012 and Rio in 2016), winning five gold medals and two silvers. The 2002 Northeast High School graduate went on to captain the U.S. Naval Academy team in 2005-06. But he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan, while trying to help other bombing victims in September 2011. The explosion blinded him but did not affect his arms or legs. His eyes, however, had to be removed and replaced with prosthetics. A year after his accident, he won the first of his two gold medals in London in the 400-meter freestyle.

Jenson Van Emburgh, 21, Belleair Beach, table tennis

Part of the U.S. Junior Para National Team for the past nine years, Van Emburgh will be competing in the Paralympics for the first time. The Naples native and Seminole High School graduate was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury at birth. After first trying sled hockey, wheelchair tennis and basketball, he discovered a passion for table tennis. He won silver medals at the Pan American Championships in 2017 (singles) and ‘18 teams). His father, Greg, is a former tennis player who reached the doubles finals at Wimbledon in 1990.

Daryl Walker, 31, Jacksonville, goalball

Walker is aiming for a gold medal after winning silver in Rio in 2016. The three-time Paralympian has albinism, a genetic condition “that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes,” according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. He first played goalball during a physical eduation class in 1996 at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and has loved it ever since. He made his first national team in 2003, at age 21. Since then, he’s competed in 12 countries, winning five national championships.

MeiMei White, 17, Orlando, swimming

White was born with a proximal femoral focal deficiency of her right leg, which resulted in multiple surgeries before her leg was amputated at 2 years old. At 5, she started swimming and hasn’t stopped. She competed in her first World Para Swimming World Series in 2018, finishing third (400-meter freestyle), fifth (100 free) and sixth (50 free). She competed again in 2019 in Indianapolis, finishing first (100 breaststroke and 400 free) and third (200 Individual Medley). These are her first Paralympic Games.

Contact outdoors reporter Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.