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New Netflix Documentary Captures History Of The Paralympics


Finally, today, September 6 would have been the closing ceremony for the Paralympics, which were to have been held in Tokyo. As you probably know, the games have been postponed until 2021. But what you might not know is that, whenever it does take place, this is a competition that has grown from the shadows of the Olympic Games into a spectacle in its own right, the third-largest sporting event on earth. The Netflix documentary "Rising Phoenix" chronicles the trials and growth of the games and features Paralympians from around the world, including the Americans Tatyana McFadden and Matthew Stutzman. Tatyana McFadden competes in wheelchair racing and cross-country skiing. Tatyana, thanks for being with us.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Matt Stutzman competes in archery. Matt, welcome to you as well.

MATT STUTZMAN: Thank you very much for having me as well.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to ask each of you how you picked the sport you chose to participate in and what does it mean to you. So, Matt, you want to start this one?

STUTZMAN: For me, it was a little bit different on how I fell into archery. My whole entire life, I've always loved sports. And I've always participated in sports. There was moments where I thought I was going to be Michael Jordan. Like, literally in my mind, that's what I was going to be. And it wasn't until later on in my life after I've tried lots of things and was not, you know, successful at being at the level I wanted to be in those sports that I found archery.

And for me, I found it because I was sitting at home trying to figure out how I was going to feed my kids. I couldn't find a job. People, you know, wouldn't give me a chance to just show them that I could work. And so I'm sitting there. And I see a guy come on TV who's an archer. Something clicked in my brain that, you know, that's something that I could do. I got a bow, and I began shooting. And I really quickly realized that I fell in love with it. It's almost like if - I found my calling. Like, hey this is what I was meant to do my entire life. And then once I found it, all the pieces kind of came together. And basically, in my mind, I had found my Michael Jordan moment.

MARTIN: Wow. Tatyana, what about you?

MCFADDEN: I didn't have a typical childhood growing up. I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. And I was born with spinal bifida, where you have a hole in your back, so your spinal column sticks out. And my birth mom at the time could not take care of me. And I was put into the orphanage No. 13. They weren't named. And my life changed my sixth year when my mom happened to walk through the door. And that day, that moment, my life changed forever. My parents researched, and they found a local parasports club in Baltimore. And I tried wheelchair racing, and I loved it. And I took for it. And I wanted to train. And I wanted to learn the technique of it. And what I started to learn was that sports - it allowed me to dream for the first time.

MARTIN: You know, the film also places the Paralympics in this larger movement about how sports can set the bar higher and change people's expectations and understanding of what people can do. And I'm wondering - and we can start with Matt on this one - I'm wondering if you've seen a shift yourself over time in how people view other people with disabilities.

STUTZMAN: Yeah. I have been in the sport eight to 10 years, somewhere in there, and even in that short amount of time, I've already seen a big change. For example, the other day, I was at the store. And there was this kid that comes up to me and goes, I saw you on the TV and stuff. And when I grow up, I want to be like you. Whereas, you know, even as like a couple years ago, you know, a kid sees me at Walmart and he goes, look, Mom, that guy has no arms. And then immediately the mom was like, shh (ph), don't look at him or don't be rude and then, like, turns the kid away kind of like I have something, right? So you're already starting to see that awareness. And you're starting to see how even though we have a physical disability, we're still people. And we can still do amazing things. And we can still do what everybody else is - can do as well. And so you're starting to see the whole world accept that and learn from it. And now it's evolving into kids being more aware in understanding what's going on. And I think it's just making it a better place for sure.

MARTIN: Tatyana, what about you? Do you think you've seen perceptions shift?

MCFADDEN: Definitely. But you also have to remember, you know, in the U.S., you know, where disability culture lies and how new the ADA is and how the perception and culture around disability and that stigma, you know, people with disabilities were in institutions. We have to break that stigma. I think that this film, "Rising Phoenix," will do that. And we've gotten already such positive comments and people saying, wow, I actually didn't really know about the history of the Paralympics or I didn't really know that these Paralympians, you know, they are just the same. They're the same as the Olympians. And they put in all these hours. And, you know, people with disabilities are elegant and are beautiful. So it's so important to just keep telling your story and showing what you do. So it's been such a great paradigm shift. I'm so excited to see where it's going to go in the future.

MARTIN: I also wanted to mention, you know, the film follows the 2016 Games in Rio. And it suggests that they were nearly scrapped if it weren't for some last-minute government support. So with all that's going on, I'm just wondering, what's each of your situation now? How are you coping with all this, the delay? And what's your life at the moment?

STUTZMAN: So I do archery for a living. And I travel around and represent the United States of America. So when this all hit, my biggest thing that, I guess, was the setback was my income. I lost my whole year of income that I had coming in with sponsors and things like that. And financially, it took a second for me to kind of, like, figure out, what am I going to do right now? You know, I have enough to live off of savings for a while. But then what I do? Because I still got to train. And so I struggled with that for a little bit. As far as the games being postponed, I actually look at that as a good thing because now I have a full another year of preparing mentally and physically for the games and making sure that I'm even, you know, more ready than I would have been this year.

MARTIN: Tatyana, what about you? What are you up to these days since the games were postponed?

MCFADDEN: It's been tough, but it also kind of allowed me to step back and really focus on myself and taking care of myself. And I've also been working with the youth on Saturdays, where we get together on Zoom and do workouts. I've done other Zoom classes for adults and showing them how to train around, you know, your house. I feel like Paralympic athletes are all about adaptability. So I was able to do that in my own house with the equipment that I had. I'm just trying to stay positive and healthy. So when the new norm happens, I'll be ready to go out of the gates.

MARTIN: Matt, before we let you go, could I just - Tatyana mentioned this, what she hopes people will get from watching this film. Can I ask you the same question? Is there something in particular you're hoping people will draw from this film?

STUTZMAN: Yeah. I just wanted to change the perspective of the way people view people with physical disabilities. I want them to see that we are very capable of living our dreams and living our lives and having families and play sports and make a living. And I want people to also be able to look at us as just, you know, we're just people just like everyone else. You know, we may look different, but we still have the same heart. And we still have the same brain. And so if we can change the perspective of that and bring more awareness to the world on what we're trying to tell people, I think it's going to make the world a better place. It's going to make life so much easier for everyone, and that's what I'm hoping.

MARTIN: Matt Stutzman and Tatyana McFadden are U.S. Paralympians. They're both featured in the documentary "Rising Phoenix," which is available for streaming on Netflix now. Tatyana McFadden, Matt Stutzman, thank you both so much for talking with us.

MCFADDEN: Thank you for having us.

STUTZMAN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.