A Champion for Disabled Athletes

Linda Mastandrea's wheelchair politics pave the way for others

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Sprinter Linda Mastandrea holds two Olympic medals, but she didn’t start racing until she was in her 20s. In fact, for the first part of her life, no one, including herself, thought she could ever be athletic.

“As a kid growing up with cerebral palsy, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump, I couldn’t even walk very well,” Mastandrea, 35, says. “So I spent a lot of time on the sidelines. People assumed sports were out of the picture for me.”

Today, she’s leading a campaign to raise the profile—and funding—of Paralympic athletics. An attorney and advocate in the Chicago office of the nonprofit America’s Athletes with Disabilities, Mastandrea has been a member of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) board of directors since 1998, and is using her position to be a “thorn in the side” of the other members, pushing and prodding them to provide equal funding and recognition for Paralympic athletes.

Her goals are numerous, but she’s convinced they’re attainable. They include securing funding and training facilities for disabled athletes, providing Paralympians with the option of joining the health insurance plan provided to able-bodied Olympians, and encouraging media attention and exposure for Paralympic events, which are currently held immediately following the closing ceremonies of the “real” Olympic Games.

“Paralympic athletes have struggled under the USOC leadership for years,” Mastandrea says. “In many ways, it comes down to money. There’s a perception that athletes with disabilities are not marketable, and therefore supporting us is a charity thing. But I think a lot of people—able-bodied or not—identify with people with disabilities. An athlete is an athlete is an athlete. If you love sports, you love sports. I’m here to attest that the thrill of the game can change your life. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair or if you are standing.”

Her own life changed when the coach of her university’s wheelchair basketball team encouraged her to join the squad. On wheels, Mastandrea discovered that she was an athlete. “Before college, sports was something for everybody else,” she says. “But once I got in a chair and on the basketball court, it was like, ‘Wow. I’ve never felt this great before. I’m playing basketball even though my legs don’t work very well.’ Once I realized I could be an athlete, I never looked back.”

Track and field was next, and soon Mastandrea was competing—and winning—in 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races against other disabled athletes. In 1992 she joined the U.S. Paralympic team, traveling to the summer games in Barcelona, and later to Atlanta (where she earned her gold and silver medals) in 1996.

The Paralympic experience was exciting, but it was also expensive. Mastandrea, like her teammates, had to pay for her own coaches, rent her own training facilities, and find her own health insurance. Since 1994 the USOC has provided travel, housing, and uniforms for Paralympic athletes, but those benefits pale in comparison to the perks dished out to able-bodied competitors.

“It’s a lot like where the women’s sports movement was 25 years ago,” Mastandrea says. “Disabled athletes are up against a lack of recognition, a lack of funding, a lack of opportunity.”

Part of January-February 2000 cover section.