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30. Blind Athletics and the Paralympic World



Show Notes


If you were asked to picture an “athlete,” you probably wouldn’t imagine someone who is blind. But with creativity, collaboration, and a few modifications, athletes with low vision can partake in many elite and recreational activities, such as goalball, skiing, tandem cycling, and many more! Sports help athletes of all ages and abilities stay healthy, build self-confidence, and become part of a team. Liza Corso—a Paralympic silver medalist—joins Marissa to share how participating in track and field has positively impacted her life. Tune in to learn about how we can raise awareness and increase opportunities for people to participate in adaptive sports.


Liza Corso is a junior at Lipscomb University studying psychology and nutrition. She was selected to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games and won a silver medal in the 1500m. She also competes on Lipscomb’s Cross Country and Track & Field team. 


“I feel that there is so much value in sports and being able to prove to yourself that you are mentally and physically tough, that you can do hard things.”


Connect with Liza!



Resources:



Transcript


Marissa: As a blind kid, I never had a good relationship with sports. Whether it be falling off the stage during ballet practice, or getting hit in the head one too many times with a Nerf ball during gym class, I seemed to always find a way to get hurt. And while it has made for some good stories, I can't help but feel like I missed out as a child. Participating in sports is such a great opportunity to relieve stress, become part of a team, and build self confidence. And I feel like everyone, regardless of visual acuity, should have access to that. Today's guest, Liza Corso, a Paralympic athlete and silver medalist, will share how running has positively impacted her life and why it's important to raise awareness for adaptive sports. So stay tuned.


Intro Music


Marissa: Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I'm very excited to have another legally blonde and blind guest, Liza Corso. Thank you so much for joining me today. I know your schedule, especially with races, is super busy. So thank you for taking the time to record and share a bit of your story.


Liza: Thank you so much for having me. I'm super excited. 


Marissa: Now to get started, do you want to just talk a little bit about yourself, who you are, where you go to school? 


Liza: Yeah, so I'm currently a junior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, but I'm originally from New Hampshire, and I'm on their cross country and track teams here, and I'm studying psychology and nutrition.


Marissa: That's exciting! So I know you said you were on their track team. What originally sparked your interest in running? 


Liza: Yeah, so I've been doing sports ever since I was little. And it's actually kind of a funny story of how I got into running. My dad is a physical therapist and he, the hospital that he works at required all their employees to either participate in or work their company 5k. And so, I was five years old at the time, and my parents decided that as a family we'd run the 5K. And so, the plan was just for me and my mom to walk it, and my two older brothers and my dad to actually run it. And, I don't remember a ton of it, but apparently all I wanted to do was run. I didn't want to walk. So after that, we decided to do like a couple more 5k’s as a family, just as I was growing up. I dabbled in a few other sports, the main one was competitive jump rope, which is interesting.


Marissa: Wait, competitive jump roping is a thing? 


Liza: Yes, my elementary school had a club and then I found a local competitive team and did that for like eight years. 


Marissa: That’s so cool!


Liza: Thanks! I also was on a swim team. I did a little bit of gymnastics, a little bit of basketball, but my main love was running and in fourth and fifth grade, I joined my elementary school's team, and then I continued in middle school, high school, and then now I'm doing it in college and for the Paralympics.


Marissa: So when you first started out doing track and other sports, did your parents or coaches have any concerns about you participating in sports with your low vision? 


Liza: Yeah. So. I feel like I kind of have, like, a different approach to sports than maybe some other legally blind people. My parents never really talked to me about my low vision or about how it would affect me participating in sports. They always just kind of threw me in and I'm grateful for that. So, as I said, I played basketball when I was in kindergarten. Like, they just kind of threw me in and just were like, see what you can do. But. I never really remember them being like, “oh, this might be more challenging for you” or “this might be harder.”


And like, there's definitely pros and cons to that. Things are definitely more frustrating for me when compared to the other kids, but I never really was like, “Oh, it's because of my vision.” I never really realized that they can see more than I can until I got older. I'd say probably like fifth or sixth grade is when I started to realize, “Oh, walking on a balance beam is probably harder for me cause I don't have depth perception.”


Marissa: | have a very similar experience. So I did sports here and there. As a child, I was involved in karate, dance, and swim, and I never really stuck with any of them. But I remember that those would be some of the first times where I realized how much my vision impacted my life. And normally they would just put me in the front, right? So I could see the instructor better, but there were times where that wasn't enough. And I started to realize that, wait, I'm not seeing or picking up on things that other kids are. So I think what happened for me is, I was almost reluctant, especially in middle school, to even really try any sports. Because I was worried about being behind or missing out on things. So I guess my philosophy at that point was, “oh, I'm just going to reject it altogether. I'm going to stand in the back of gym class, not even try.”. I still got hit in the head though. 


Liza: Oh my gosh, me too. 


Marissa: Balls just have a way of finding me.


Liza: I think I was really fortunate to find running. Because there isn't, for me, there isn't a ton of challenge, like, seeing an instructor, or catching a ball, or needing to see someone else to throw a ball to. With running, you just go. So, I think I was fortunate that that was, like, less frustrating, so then I was able to find a love for that sport.


Marissa: So, what kind of accommodations do you have, if any, that you use to participate in track and field and what are some that are available to other people that you've heard of? 


Liza: Yeah. So for me, with albinism, my eyes are super sensitive to the light. So I run all my races wearing a hat just to block the sun. And then sometimes I'll wear sunglasses too, if it's really bright And those are my main things. I have enough vision that I don't run with a guide, but a guide is definitely a really great option. 


Marissa: So how did you first learn about the Paralympics and what made you want to compete at such an elite level?


Liza: So I actually didn't hear about the Paralympics until I was much older. I found out about them my sophomore year of high school, which is kind of crazy and honestly kind of sad that, being someone who is able to compete in the Paralympics, not even knowing about them until my sophomore year of high school. 


But I had one cross country race that I raced with a guide. And it's the only time I've ever raced with a guide. And it was because I went to a really small high school and it was our conference championships. And so my coach knew that I'd be in front, but they changed the course because of construction like a week before. So I didn't have time to run the course before, which is something that I would generally do because in cross country, one of my main concerns is getting lost since I can't see arrows far away or cones or things like that. So we got a local college runner to run right in front of me. And so I just followed him. Somehow the local news station found out about this and me running with low vision and they did a news story about my experience running with low vision.


And this is like my first time that my vision and running kind of connected because before that I kind of saw running as something that I didn't need that much, that many accommodations for. And so at first, not gonna lie. I was a little bit embarrassed about this story because it was my first time really talking about my vision in front of a large setting. But looking back, I'm so grateful for it. 


So someone in Pennsylvania actually saw the news story and she was also a legally blind runner. And she did some work with USABA, the United States Association for Blind Athletes.


And she told me about an ID camp at the Olympic and Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs. And it was with USABA and it was for four different sports: judo, swimming, goalball, and track and field. And so I was like, yeah, like this might be like a cool opportunity to go and train with other blind athletes and just learn more about the Paralympics. But it still didn't, like, cross my mind that I could be participating in the Paralympics.


Marissa: Could you briefly explain what the Paralympics is?  Because I think there's so much confusion about what it is and how it differs from the Special Olympics. 


Liza: Yes, oh my gosh, totally. So The Paralympics are parallel to the Olympics, so that's why it's called the Paralympics. And it’s for physically disabled athletes. So it's in the same venue as the Olympics. It's just three weeks or so after the Olympics and we compete in the same uniform. We do very similar things to Olympic athletes, we just have a physical impairment. So someone could be missing their arm or missing their leg. They could be an amputee. They could have some sort of paralysis and be in a wheelchair. They have cerebral palsy or they could be visually impaired. But then the Special Olympics are for someone who has an intellectual disability, and anyone can, with an intellectual disability, can compete in the Special Olympics, where the Paralympics, there's a rigorous qualification process, and Paralympic team trials, just like Olympic team trials, and all that kind of stuff.


Marissa: So, what was that training and qualification process like? 


Liza: Yeah, so, I was qualifying my junior year of high school, which was crazy because there's only like a year after I had found out about the Olympics and realized that I could qualify or try to qualify. But then due to COVID, they got postponed a year. So that was kind of crazy, like getting into the process and then being like, “Oh, no, we have to wait a year.” So it was in my senior year of high school and I was running like my high school races while trying to find races that I could do that were sanctioned by the international Paralympic community so that I could get a qualifying time to compete in the U.S. Paralympic team trials, which is the main qualification event. So once I got a time to qualify for those, I competed at the trials and that's where I thankfully ran fast enough to qualify for the team. 


Marissa: So what events did you compete in? 


Liza: I did the 1500m, so it's a little bit over a mile.


Marissa: And you do that on a track, right? 


Liza: Yes. So it's completely clear. 


Marissa: That must be a lot easier than trying to do something like cross country or distance running. 


Liza: Yes, definitely. Track is definitely a lot easier visually. There's no hills or roots or rocks to try to avoid. 


Marissa: And now what was it like when you went to these qualifying events and eventually got to compete? What was it like to be in a community and be surrounded by so many other disabled athletes? 


Liza: Oh my gosh, it was amazing. I never really realized how important community with other disabled athletes was. I grew up not really around other visually impaired or disabled athletes. My older brother also has albinism, but besides that…I've never really had friends that were legally blind. And so being a part of this community was amazing. There’s so many things that you don't realize affects you day to day, but. I'm so used to just living my life that I don't notice small challenges or differences, but being surrounded by people who face these challenges every day was honestly just freeing and just such a cool opportunity to learn from them and to share in our experiences.


And actually there's one girl, Erin Kirkhoff, who also competed in the Paralympics. She's a 400m runner who's legally blind, and she's also a collegiate athlete. So it was fun just talking with her like, “oh, what do you do when you like, can't see your coach across the track?” Or like, 

"What do you do since you can't drive?” Like, just all the small things. And it's just so cool being surrounded by all those people. 


Marissa: You know, I really related to that story you were telling me about when you did a race with a guide runner. Your local community, like, posted a story about it, that feeling of embarrassment. I think when you're the only person with a visible disability participating in any kind of sporting event, there's a lot of questions that you get. I do tandem cycling, and I recently participated in a charity ride called Bellringer, and I was one of two tandem cycling teams. I would get tons of questions from people about why I was doing it or people would say that “oh, she's not pedaling back there” when I was. And so I'm sure it's really nice to be in a community where no one's questioning your ability. Nobody's questioning how you participate in sports or whether it's valid for you to participate in sports that way. You can just be. 


Liza: Yeah, definitely. 


Marissa: And you also won a silver medal, which is so cool. 


Liza: Thank you.


Marissa: What was that like? 


Liza: Yeah, that was absolutely insane. I wasn't even ranked for a medal. So going into the games, I was ranked around eighth place just based off of my previous times that I had run, but I had just switched from training with my high school coach to training with my college coach. So I was doing completely different training. I upped my mileage a little bit. And so I honestly didn't really know what to expect for how I would run or like what time I would get. So it was a complete shock to be able to get a personal best and to get the silver. It was crazy.


Marissa: Now, where did you travel to compete? 


Liza: So the Paralympics were in Tokyo. And then the trials were in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 


Marissa: That's so cool. Did your family go with you? 


Liza: So, because it was during COVID there were no spectators, but when I qualified, I was 17. And so since I was a minor, I was allowed to have a chaperone. So, my mom was actually able to come. 


Marissa: I'm sure your parents must have been freaking out. 


Liza: Yeah, they were. 


Marissa: Now, how big is the medal that you get? And where do you keep it now?


Liza: Okay, it's actually pretty heavy. I was shocked.


Marissa: Really??? 


Liza: Yes, it's so heavy, and it's at home. I don't bring it to school with me because I don't want anything to happen to it.


Marissa: Well, it could almost be a weapon if someone breaks into your dorm. 


Liza: Oh my gosh, yeah, that's so true. 


Marissa: You messed with the wrong athlete! 


Liza: It always gets flagged, like, if I ever travel with it through TSA, they're always like, “what are you traveling with?” 


Marissa: And then they, like, open it and they're like, “Oh, congrats!” 


So how do you think that participating in sports, particularly in the Paralympics, has impacted your life? 


Liza: Oh my gosh, so many ways. I think just sports in general, it just gives me an outlet for me to really work hard and push myself and just see how hard I can push myself to accomplish my goals. And I think that has taught me a lot of other lessons in life about determination and perseverance and to keep going when times get tough. 


But the Paralympics specifically have definitely given me a platform to be able to share my story and when I was younger, that would have terrified me because I was embarrassed of my low vision. But now being in the Paralympics and being surrounded by other athletes with physical impairments and just seeing how they share their stories and how confident they are in themselves has really just shifted my mindset on my low vision and just given me the ability to try to help younger athletes be more open about their vision and just be more confident in who they are. 


Marissa: Yeah, that really means a lot to me. You know, obviously I'm not competing on nearly the same level as you are, or even really competing at all, but I think participating in sports in college has given me a huge confidence boost because I never thought of myself as an athlete or as someone who is strong physically or mentally strong. And I think a lot of that had to do with my vision. I just assumed that I couldn't do this or I would look bad doing this or I would embarrass myself. So I didn't even try. But putting myself out there, setting goals and pushing myself has been a huge confidence boost. 


Liza: Yeah, definitely.


Marissa: And also too, I mean, running and biking can be individual sports, but being on a team, and working with other people is huge, whether that be coaches, or a captain sitting in front of you, or a guide runner. I think there's so much emphasis on individualism, like, you have to do this by yourself, but I think being a part of a team and working with somebody else and realizing that that doesn't make you any less valuable, that you're working together to accomplish your goals, really helped me personally.


Liza: Yeah, definitely. And I think that's something that's so cool with cross country is like it's individual, but you're also doing it as a team. And like every runner matters and we're all like trying to score for the team. But then also competing for the U. S. is also just so team oriented and like you just realize that like, “Okay This is not for yourself. Like you're wearing the USA across your chest. Like this is for your country,.” 


Marissa: That’s incredible. 


Liza: Oh, it’s crazy. And then like there's also so many people there who are supporting you like coaches and trainers and all that kind of stuff. So it's like “wow, I'm really doing this for them” and there’s this appreciation for the team. 


Marissa: Well, one of the themes of my podcast that I've talked about a lot is this sort of toxic desire for complete independence. I felt like I needed to do everything on my own. And if I needed help or accommodations and people saw it, it would make me appear weak or less than. And sports was one of those outlets where I saw the value of working as a team.


Liza: 100%. And something that really just goes to show that is with guide running, in the Paralympics, or even cross country skiing where you're competing with a guide, the guide and the athlete get all the same funding. They both get a medal, they both, so it's really like you are doing this together, which I think is just so cool.


Marissa: Right! And the best is when the captain is not doing it as a volunteering or charity case. They genuinely like the sport. Now last but not least, I wanted to ask you, why do you think it's important to raise awareness and increase opportunities for people to participate in adaptive sports? 


Liza: I think it is so important. And kind of like what I was saying is, I feel that there's so much value in sports and in being able to prove to yourself that you are mentally and physically tough and that you can do hard things, and that there is a space for you. And so I think adaptive sports are just that perfect opportunity to be able to prove to yourself that you can accomplish hard things. There’s also just so much fun in sports. And I think that is sometimes not shown enough. 


Marissa: That's a really good point. And I feel like when I was younger, I just immediately turned down any kind of opportunity to be a part of sports or a team. But I feel like I was denying myself the opportunity to have fun and to enjoy moving around.


Liza: Yeah, a hundred percent. So I think if someone is able to have the accommodations that they need to be able to compete in sports is just so important and so valuable. 


Marissa: I think too, when we picture an athlete, we think of somebody who's six feet tall, has a six pack and giant biceps, right? When people think of an athlete, they probably don't picture someone who's blind or is a wheelchair user or has a prosthetic leg. I think it's important to show that one, disabled people can be elite athletes, but that two, even if—disabled or not—you're not an elite athlete, participating in sports at any level is completely valid and should be celebrated. You don't have to be perfect. 


Liza: Yes, 100%. I totally agree. And I think part of it is that the ones who are six feet tall and have a six pack are mainly the ones that are shown in the media. Someone with a prosthetic leg or someone who is legally blind doesn't have as much representation in the media. And so I think just growing awareness for the Paralympics and for disabled athletes will kind of help shift that picture of what an athlete looks like. And really just help people understand that they too can be an athlete. You don't have to be competing internationally to enjoy sports and to love sports and to love the feeling that sports can bring.


Marissa: And I think, too, about how you mentioned you didn't even know about the Paralympics till your sophomore year of high school. I think, for me, the only exposure I had to adaptive sports was the “special” gym class in my middle school, and it had a very negative connotation to it. And I think seeing more types of sports and more, more ways of engaging in athletics would be so helpful to kids growing up with our condition.


Liza: 100%. And just the recondition that it is normal. 


Marissa: Adaptive sports aren’t “special” sports. They’re just another sport. There's no “regular” or “normal” sport. 


Liza: Yeah, exactly. 


Marissa: I really like to see too. I know, I don't know if you've ever been to NOAH, but a lot of, I've seen a lot more of like goalball at the conferences. Have you ever played goalball? 


Liza: Okay. I've played goalball once, and it was at that ID camp at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center and it is hard. 


Marissa: It is. It's terrifying. 


Liza: It's super fun, but wow, it is a challenge. 


Marissa: It scares me so much. I think with having residual vision, putting on a blindfold is still really disorienting even if you have bad vision. And it would just scare me hearing this beep, beep, beep. Like, is this gonna hit me in the head? 


Liza: Yeah. It's very aggressive. 


Marissa: Yes. I remember I did it at NOAH and I hid behind the tall kids. Well, thank you so much for joining me. It was great to hear your perspective. Do you have anything else you want to add, any ways people can find you if they want to learn more? 


Liza: I just want to say thank you so much for having me, and just being open to sharing more about adaptive sports and the Paralympic movement. You can find me on Instagram at @liza.corso3, and that's mainly where you can just learn more about my story.


Marissa: Do you have any races coming up? 


Liza: So, right now, we just finished our cross country season, and so, my team actually qualified for the NCAA Division I National Championships for the first time, which was incredible. So we're just kind of coming off of that and moving into indoor track. SO I don't start indoor track until the third week of January. And then this is, we are going into 2024, a Paralympic and Olympic Games year. This year it’s in Paris. 


Marissa: Well, we are wishing you the best of luck!


***


Marissa: Well, everyone, I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I think Liza is shedding light on this world that I had no idea existed till I entered college. There are so many blind and disabled athletes out there. I feel like when sighted people see someone running a marathon who is disabled, they're like, “this is so rare and inspiring.” But at this point I've met so many blind athletes who participate in endurance sports that it's not even surprising to me. 


I'm so happy I found this world because exercise is not just good for your physical health and wellness, but also your mental health. It's been a great way for me to relax and de-stress. I always joke with my family that a SoulCycle class is about the same as a copay for therapy. So they're basically the same thing. 


Anyways, I hope the conversation we had today and all of Liza's advocacy work is going to expose more blind folks, especially younger people, to all the different opportunities out there to participate in sports. Two years ago, I had no idea that blind skiing and rock climbing were a thing. But they certainly are. There's something out there for everybody. And it doesn't just have to be Goalball. Which, don't get me wrong, is an incredible sport. But it terrifies me. I have just experienced too much trauma with ball sports. I don't think I can do it. 


Anyways, if you liked today's episode, make sure to subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your shows. You can also stay up to date by following my social media accounts @legallyblondeblind on Instagram and Facebook. You can also check my website, www.LegallyBlondeBlind.com, for updates. Thank you all for listening, and I hope to SEE you soon! 


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