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Therapist says trip changed her life

Massage therapist from Columbia was picked to help at the Paralympic Games.
Monday, October 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:56 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Elisabeth Norton, a massage therapist from Columbia, called the three weeks she spent working at the Paralympic Games “definitely mind-blowing.”

Norton was one of 60 international massage therapists who assisted the athletes during the September games in Athens. The Paralympics, like the summer and winter Olympics that precede them, occur every two years. These games, however, showcase athletes with disabilities.

This year, almost 4,000 athletes participated.

“Working with the athletes was definitely a life-altering experience,” Norton said. Her first client was an athlete who had no legs and only 6 inches of each upper arm.

It was the first time Norton had worked extensively with people with disabilities, especially amputees.

“Every button I had was pushed,” Norton said, referring to the challenges of the experience. “However, I knew what to do. By my second body, I was perfectly comfortable.”

Norton said she had two profound realizations.

“One was that no matter what color the package, no matter where you’re from, what the language is, eye color, hair color, skin color — a body is a body,” she said. “Secondly, regardless of what is missing or where it’s at or how it works, it’s still a body.”

Athletes come from 136 countries. Norton worked with athletes from 40 of them. To overcome language barriers, she and her clients adapted a communication system using their hands.

Norton said she had a gratifying connection with people as they kept coming back for her assistance. She attributed this to her patient nature.

“I had a whole contingency of C.P. (cerebral palsy) clients from all over the world,” she said.

She said a number of the athletes showed their appreciation by giving her pins depicting their country or their sport.

Norton worked in the Olympic Village from 3 to 9 p.m. daily, averaging 10 athletes a day. She had just two days off during her three-week stay.

“To just sit there and notice that I was in the minority, to be in a place where the majority of people have disabilities and just revel in how magnificent it was to be in that space — it was a gift,” she said.

According to the Paralympics Web site, the United States won 103 medals.

Norton and her colleagues were amazed that the United States had no live coverage of the games while some other countries had at least two hours of coverage each night. Norton said she thinks it’s her duty to educate people and get more media coverage because not many people have the opportunity to be a part of such a humbling experience.

She said this experience has made her think, “How do I make my work accessible? I’m buying a portable table so I can go see people. There’s a whole new spectrum of people to reach, including the disabled contingency in Columbia.”

Norton said she hopes to expand on the experience by pooling resources with her colleagues to be a part of the first World Cup Paralympic Games in Manchester, England, next May followed by the Cerebral Palsy International Games next July in New London, Conn.


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