While most athletes who compete with disabilities prefer not to be given special treatment, it is near impossible to regard them with anything less than amazed admiration and deep respect. To qualify for World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, it isn’t enough to compete and excel on the Paralympic program within the award year. Candidates also have to show strong leadership qualities in their sports, in their communities and in public speaking. This year’s nominees are covered by the disability categories that include cerebral palsy, spinal cord lesions, spina bifida, polio, intellectual disability, visual impairment and amputations (prosthetic and wheelchair users).
Beatrice Hess (France), Paraplegic Swimming: The 39-year-old native of Colmar, France won seven gold medals at the 2000 Paralympic Games while setting six world records along the way. Her achievements came in the 50-meter freestyle, the 50-meter butterfly, the 100 free, the 200 free, the 50-meter backstroke, the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley. Such performances have become commonplace for Hess. At the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996, she won six golds and a silver and also broke the world and Games records in the 200-meter individual medley with a time of 3:35.94.
David Hall (Australia), Wheelchair Tennis: After the year he had in 2000, Hall’s greatest challenge now is to find space for all those new trophies and medals. The most obvious emblem of the 30-year-old Hall’s masterful run last year was a gold medal in men’s singles at the Paralympics in his native Sydney. He also added to his cache by snatching a silver in the doubles. Hall, who is a double above-knee amputee, became the ITF Wheelchair Tennis World Champion for the third time last year and finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world in both singles and doubles. Adding to his phenomenal haul, he also won singles titles in the Queensland Open, Florida Open, Thailand Open, Japan Open, World Team Cup, Austria Cup, Swiss Open and U.S. Open.
Lee Pearson (Britain), Disabled Equestrian: Pearson, 27, is a severely disabled Grade One rider, but if you glanced at his achievements, you surely would do a double-take to make sure they weren’t being mixed up with those of someone who is not so physically challenged. Last year, he won gold medals in the three events he entered at the 2000 Paralympics. He was the individual champion in Grade One, the dressage-to-music champion in Grade One and he also shared the team gold. That capped a splendid year in which Pearson captured honors in his classes at the British National and British International Championships. Pearson has competed successfully in novice classes among the able-bodied as well.
Vinny Lauwers (Australia), Paraplegic Sailing: A motorcycle accident in 1990 has forced the 33-year-old Lauwers to use a wheelchair along a special layout below deck, and then crawl about when above. After the accident, Lauwers spent seven years relearning his sailing skills. His prowess reached a peak in 2000 when he became the first sailor with a disability to sail solo around the world. His voyage was nonstop and unassisted, and it took seven months and two weeks, concluding on August 10, 2000. The native of Brussels was not just on a joy ride: His historic sojourn raised $40,000 Australian to benefit disadvantaged and disabled children.
Shea Cowart (United States), Amputee Athletics: Cowart is a bilateral below-knee amputee, the result of a childhood disease. It has never slowed her down, as evidenced by her participation against able-bodied competitors in softball, basketball and cheerleading. Last year, the 21-year-old Cowart set the world record in the women’s 100 meters class T44 with a time of 13.97 in the Paralympic Games at Sydney. She is the only female leg amputee in the world to have broken the 14-second barrier over 100 meters and the 30-second barrier over 200 meters.