Zena Cole of Oregon relaxes at Pearson Metropark with the bronze medal she won in the discus throw at the 2012 Paralympics in London, which led to a meeting with President Obama and the First Lady.
the blade/zack conkle
It has been a busy August and September for Zena Cole.
The Oregon resident competed in the Paralympic Games in London, where she won a bronze medal in the discus, and followed that up with a visit to the White House with Team USA, where she met President Obama, First Lady Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden.
She captured the bronze this month with a discus throw of 5.29 meters, which set an American record in the quadriplegic women's category. In achieving the record, she surpassed the U.S. record she had set last year at the Parapan American Games, where she won gold.
At 55, Ms. Cole is the oldest member of the 19-member women's Paralympic track and field team.
"I've been having a fantastic time," she said of her recent whirlwind life.
Her time in the United Kingdom was not all devoted to athletics. Before moving into the Olympic Village, she stayed at Lakenheath Air Force Base in Suffolk, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Britain. She also was able to visit some of England, including Cambridge, which she liked a lot except for the cobblestone walks and lack of curb cuts, which made getting around in her motorized wheelchair a challenge.
Her room in the Olympic Village, which she shared with another wheelchair user, was similarly not designed with the handicapped in mind, but she emphasized that she had no complaints. "It was all good. You didn't spend much time in the rooms," she said.
Her first competition was in the club, the Paralympic equivalent of the hammer throw. She finished 11th. "The competition was pretty good. But it taught me some good lessons for the next one, which was the discus throw," she said.
The winning discus throw was a meter more than hers. A British athlete took the gold, while the silver went to a woman from Ireland.
Ms. Cole acknowledged she had butterflies at the Games, and not just because of the high quality of the athletes. "You worry about being in another country and whether they would cheer for you," she said. "They did. The crowd didn't care where you were from. The people were so welcoming. It was terrific."
The closing ceremony featuring Cold Play, Rihanna, and Jay-Z "was spectacular," she said.
Ms. Cole contracted polio when she was 18 months old. She had been vaccinated, but doctors told her family her body had rejected the vaccination. She was in a iron lung until age 4, then wore braces and used crutches until she was 12. She always loved sports and was able to play baseball and skateboard even as a disabled child.
In 1991, she came down with postpolio syndrome, a condition that afflicts many polio survivors years after their initial attack. She experienced pain and a further weakening of her muscles.
Today, she has no use of her legs or right arm and gets around in a motorized wheelchair and converted van. Her competitive throwing is done with her left arm. She had to retire on disability from her job with the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation after the onset of the postpolio syndrome. She qualified for Team USA in 2010.
During her stint in London, she had three avid fans back home following the Paralympics on a live Internet stream: her daughters Britenee and Kalee Callihan, 14 and 15, respectively, who stayed with her friend Deb Henneman.
"We were screaming when they announced her," Britenee said.
The frosting on the cake of her whole Paralympian experience was the visit to the White House, where a reception was held on the front lawn. She said the Obamas came across as a regular husband-and-wife team.
"They were awesome. They made a point of shaking everyone's hand. It was all about us. They are really down to Earth when you're face to face with them.
"Michelle was very interested in a black Lab assistance dog with one of the athletes," she said. "She was immediately attracted to it."
Another pleasure of the White House visit, she added, was its total handicapped accessibility.
"They had ramps built around everything. It was great."