Paralympic Medalist Anjali Forber-Pratt Talks to

A word of advice: Don't ever tell Anjali Forber-Pratt what she can't do. That is, unless you want her to do it. Paralyzed from the waist down since childhood, Anjali has spent her life overcoming limitations others have tried to impose on her.

By Douglas Fehlen

Anjali Forber-Pratt Paralympics Paralympian World Championships wheelchair racing You recently won the 200-meter race at the 2011 International Paralympic Committee World Athletic Championships, setting a World Championship Record along the way. How did you prepare for the competition?

Anjali Forber-Pratt: Preparation for World Championships really began immediately following the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. Certainly my physical and athletic preparations with my coach Adam Bleakney were keys to my success--training six days a week both in my racing wheelchair and in the weight room. The other preparation involved mentally being ready for World Championships. For me, this meant learning how to be true to myself. While this may sound simple enough, in the buzz of international competition, it's actually quite hard to do. What I mean by being true to yourself is remembering why you are there on that starting line, remembering who you are and not allowing other people's predictions or expectations distract you as an athlete. To do this, it meant that I had to confidently attack each race. But to get to that point meant being conscious of this in the years and months leading up to World Championships. You won a bronze medal in the 400-meter race at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. How did it feel to represent the United States in that competition?

AFP: Representing the United States on the world stage in front of 91,000 fans was a truly breathtaking experience. To have the opportunity to wear that Team USA jersey is a tremendous honor. The Paralympic Games are the second largest sporting event in the world (only the Olympic Games are larger), and competing in them is something I had dreamt about from the time I was a kid. To be surrounded by such amazing athletes and individuals from around the world is incredible. Making my debut at the Paralympic Games, to come home with two bronze medals - one in the 400m and one in the 4x100m relay - was a proud accomplishment for me. I've got my sights now set on London in 2012 and hope to earn the opportunity to represent my country once again. When did you begin racing? Did you compete in any other sports growing up?

AFP: I grew up just outside of Boston. There is a huge sporting event hosted there in April called the Boston Marathon. I lived within walking distance of the 8-mile marker, and everyone from the area went out to support the event. That's just what you do, it's part of the whole marathon frenzy. So there I was, five years old, up early to stake out my spot on the sidewalk to watch the thousands of runners go by. We were there nice and early, and then the strangest thing happened. A person in a racing wheelchair came whizzing by going 25 miles per hour. I was awestruck!

This truly was a life changing moment for me. I had no idea that people with disabilities could participate in sports such as this or grow up and get jobs or an education; witnessing this gave me the opportunity to create dreams of my own. I knew from that moment that racing was something I had to check out for myself. I wanted to become a wheelchair racer.

My parents found a Saturday sports program for kids with disabilities that was about an hour away from my house. I decided I wanted to be an athlete, I wanted to go to college, I wanted to do more than just sit on the couch. I fell in love with the sports featuring speed - namely downhill skiing and wheelchair racing. I did try every sport under the sun: tennis, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, field events, archery, swimming, table tennis, rock climbing - you name it, I have probably tried it! I got the competition bug by age six, and a few years later in 1993, I competed in my first Junior National competition in Ohio. I was named to my first U.S. National team in 2007, and haven't looked back since. You're not only among the fastest female wheelchair athletes in the world, you are also a serious scholar. Can you describe your academic background?

AFP: I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Resource Education in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I completed both my bachelor's and master's degrees here as well in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science. What do you eventually hope to do after you complete your doctorate at the University of Illinois?

AFP: Ah, that's the 'big question' isn't it? To be honest, I am not entirely sure, as it depends upon how long I continue elite competitive wheelchair racing. What I do know is that I am passionate about helping those left on the sidelines for whatever reason, not just in a sports context but also in life or education. I see myself continuing to spread my story and message to help others. I love being able to help individuals realize their own potential and achieve their dreams. I can see this translating to many different possibilities - research or work in the area of leadership development, consulting or perhaps teaching. At this point, I'm keeping all my options open and you'll just have to follow me to see where I end up!

Anjali Forber-Pratt Paralympics Paralympian World Championships wheelchair racing In addition to your racing and academic responsibilities, you also speak at organizations around the country serving disabled children. Can you talk about that?

AFP: Outreach and motivating others to dream big is a deeply rooted passion of mine. I love speaking to groups of individuals here in the United States and around the world. To me, the telling of my story is important to help ignite a fire within other people to achieve their own dreams too. Whether I am speaking to an organization serving individuals with disabilities, a kindergarten class or a group of corporate executives, I sincerely hope that people recognize their own potential and go after it.

When I share my story, I make it a point to explain that there will always be obstacles as you set out to achieve your dreams. But, to me, obstacles are just opportunities in disguise. All of my successes - academic, athletic and otherwise - came with some opportunities in disguise. I feel that by sharing the hardships of my story in addition to the successes, it gives people something to think back to when the going gets tough; even if my experiences are not the same, how I overcame these struggles might help others, too.

Specifically, I do have a soft spot in my heart for working with organizations that serve kids with disabilities. In fact, I have co-authored a kid's educational coloring book called All About Sports: For Athletes with Physical Disabilities. There were many times in my life when I could have given up on myself, such as when educators gave up on me and told me that I could not go to college because I had a disability. As trying as these times were in my life, they have also given me the gumption to pay it forward and to do what I can to make sure that other kids with disabilities know about the opportunities that do exist for them in the world. With all of your academic and outreach work, how do you find time to train? Can you describe your daily regimen?

AFP: Ha, great question! I make the time. It's all about priorities and planning for it. I set my training schedule with my coach first, and then fit the rest around it. Luckily my department and college are extremely understanding of my situation. I meet with professors prior to the start of the semester and let them know how many classes I will likely be missing and we see if we can work out alternate arrangements. I have Skyped in for class presentations, taken online classes and come up with many other creative ways to make it all work. The truth is, it is important to be your own advocate and I've found that by working with professors and your advisor and whoever else might be involved, there are always ways to problem-solve.

Fortunately for me now, I have completed the majority of my coursework, so my typical day starts off with breakfast and dashing out the door for training at 8:00 a.m. Once my training session is done for the day, I shower, eat a second breakfast and head to work where I am an Online Programs Coordinator for five online master's programs offered through our department. In the afternoon, if I have a second training session I go back for that, or I set aside some time for my own writing. I train six days a week, go to class currently one day a week, and if I'm not traveling for races or outreach, I try to spend some of that other time making progress towards graduation, catching up with friends and/or thinking up new projects for me! You are training to qualify for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. What are you most excited about as the event approaches?

AFP: Yes! I would love all the support possible as I prepare and train for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. There is a lot happening between now and then, in fact. My next big event is in a few short weeks, my very first Boston Marathon. After that I will move into my regular track season and will have U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Nationals this summer; Paralympic Trials next summer as we lead into the Games. The best places to follow me are on Facebook (, Twitter (@anjalifp) or my website (

As London approaches, I certainly hope to have the opportunity to represent my country as part of Team USA once again. For me, in addition to the thrill of racing to win on the world stage, I am excited about educating the world about the Paralympic Games. I was once that young kid who aspired to be a Paralympian, and who learned to dream by watching former Paralympians succeed on the track and in life, so to have the opportunity to pay it forward and hopefully do the same for others truly excites me. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about yourself and the work you do.

AFP: Each day I live and breathe my own motto, 'Dream. Drive. Do.' I love everything that I do, academically, athletically, with my public speaking engagements and outreach with organizations. It is through the collection of these moments, that I have created a platform to change the world. My utopia long ago was and is for a world that is physically and socially accepting of people regardless of their disability status. Now my utopia has grown to include anyone who is left on the sideline whatever the reason - disability status, race, sexual orientation to name a few - in this utopian world.

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