Raising a Paralympian: How two Canadian sledge hockey stars got to Sochi

The Eh Game

The toughest people at the Paralympics may not actually be the athletes. The latest P&G Paralympic commercial says it perfectly, “The world’s toughest Moms (and Dads) raise the world’s toughest kids.”

Kathy Ludwig, along with her husband and parents, and Tony and Anna-Lee Gale, along with their two best friends are here to watch their sons, Karl Ludwig and Anthony Gale, compete at their first Paralympic Games as part of the Canadian sledge hockey team. Both families are from Brampton, Ont., and neither family could have imagined that one day they would be travelling across the world to watch their son compete for Canada.

At these Games the role of Kathy, Anna-Lee, and Tony may be cheering from the sidelines, but there was a time when they had a fundamental role in forging the path these Paralympians took to the world stage.

When Anna-Lee was pregnant with Anthony the doctors told her and Tony that their baby would be born with severe disabilities. They encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy. Both Anna-Lee and Tony started crying as they told me that there was never a question that they were keeping their baby. Kathy didn’t know that Karl would be born with a disability but said there was never a question that her children were going to be involved in sports, disability or not. Both boys were born with Spina Bifida, an incomplete closing of the vertebrae overlying the spinal cord.

These parents knew that their kids were not going to have it easy in life and they had a responsibility to make them tough. Watch them fall down and let them figure out how to get back up on their own, literally and figuratively. Kathy recalls the first time Karl attempted to skate. She watched him fall on his face time after time. But she refused to be the one to tell him he couldn’t do something. Karl came to the conclusion himself that skating standing up was not for him and found a sledge hockey team to join. Anna-Lee and Tony encouraged Anthony to play sports with the other kids in the neighborhood. He played street hockey with his friends but would always be put in the net because he was not as fast as the other kids. He got tired of always being goalie so one day jumped on his skateboard, duck-taped his legs down and got back in the game. He never had to be the goalie again.

When it comes to their hockey careers, the parents of both boys give all the credit to their sons and say they are internally motivated. They had goals and went after them, but it was far from easy. Karl has been playing sledge hockey his whole life and moved his way up through every level in Canada. He was invited to tryout for the national team for the first time at 15 years old, but it took nine years of trying out until he finally made the team in 2012. Kathy said each time he didn’t make it was difficult but by far 2010 was the most devastating year. He was in the best shape of his life and everyone, including Karl, was sure this was the year he would make the team. Three players from his home team, including Anthony Gale, were trying out that year and while the other two boys made the team, Karl once again didn’t make the cut. Karl was crushed and Kathy’s heart broke for her son. She didn’t know if she could watch her son go through another disappointment, but she would support him in whatever he decided. Karl kept playing. It was his dream to wear the maple leaf on his chest representing Canada and he was not ready to give up. Kathy stood by her son as he pushed on, even more motivated than ever. On March 7th when he walked into the stadium at the opening ceremonies, Kathy and her husband watched their son finally achieve his dream. They could not be more proud.

When I asked Anna-Lee how it feels to be here in Russia watching her son play for Canada, tears filled her eyes and she went silent. Wiping her tears she told me she didn’t think she could find the words. Tony looked at me and said, “That’s a first!”

When they were born, no one thought they stood a chance. Because these parents fought for their boys, their boys are now able to fight for gold. Thank you so much to all of the parents of our athletes. You were the first to believe in them, and now the entire world does, too.

Stephanie Dixon is a 19-time Paralympic medallist, a seven-time Paralympic champion, and current world record holder in swimming. She competed in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Summer Paralympic Games. She will be writing for Eh Game during the Sochi Paralympics.

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