Glory of Olympics, Paralympics equal in eyes of NBC’s Lewis Johnson

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The Paralympic Games, which is the world’s largest sports event for athletes with physical disabilities, and is now underway in Rio de Janeiro, pretty much defines inspiring sports television.

But NBC’s Lewis Johnson, now reporting at the Paralympics after working NBC’s Rio Summer Olympics, suggests Paralympic action isn’t all that different from what he saw at the Olympics.

“To me, I choose to see the two events as not having any difference,” says Johnson.

Like the Olympics, he says, the Paralympics offers “tremendous human interest stories, although the human interest stories are more striking, because of the athletes’ physical challenges, whether they came at birth, or accidents or military service.”

But, he says, the athletes have the “same camaraderie” as what he saw last month at the Rio Olympics. Johnson, who has had nine NBC Olympic on-air assignments and debuted on Paralympic coverage of winter action in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, is struck by other similarities between Olympic and Paralympic action. “The competitors have a great sense of pride about competing for their countries. And at venues, everybody responds to them as athletes.”

Although, notes Johnson, the fans in Rio do treat Paralympic athletes a bit differently: “Whoever finishes last can get cheers like whoever finishes first.”

No wonder. Viewers, via the unprecedented U.S. TV coverage that includes more than 70 hours on NBC and the NBC Sports Network showing the more than 4,000 athletes competing in 22 sports, will see plenty of athletes who deserve lots of credit just for showing up.

Take Blake Haxton. As a high school rower, Haxton contracted a rare infection that led amputations of both his legs. That the Ohio State grad returned to the sport and is in the Paralympics, says Johnson, “is amazing. And he takes so much joy in competing.”

And for sheer versatility and endurance, Tatyana McFadden is clearly a remarkable athlete – by any standard. She entered seven Paralympic events in Rio – powering her wheelchair through the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter races as well as a relay and the marathon.

McFadden, who along with other top U.S. Paralympic athletes trains at the University of Illinois, was born with a congenital disorder that left her paralyzed from the waist down. But that has hardly hasn’t kept her from competing in far-flung events. In 2014, she made her winter Paralympic debut in Sochi, Russia, where she won a silver medal in cross-country skiing, and her long list of achievements includes winning the wheelchair division of the marathons in London, Boston, Chicago and New York in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Johnson, who was a star runner at the University of Cincinnati before competing in the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials and then joining NBC in 1999, plans to try some off-beat reporting to try to understand the very different perspective of U.S. sprinter David Brown.

Brown lost his sight at age 13. He trains in Chula Vista, CA with his sighted guide Jerome Avery, who competed as a runner in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. Bound by a tether, Brown and Avery run side-by-side, as they communicate by sound and touch – which has worked out well as Brown, arguably, has become the world’s fastest blind person.

Johnson, who ran professionally in Europe and was ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. in the 800-meter race, plans to run a practice 100-meter sprint while sightless, with Avery as his guide, to understand what Brown faces while competing.

Although Paralympic athletes face unusual challenges – like sprinters trying to hear verbal cues from guides running alongside them – the event itself has arguably mainstream appeal. In addition to NBC’s largest-ever TV coverage – and live online U.S. Olympic Committee coverage on TeamUSA.org – the International Paralympic Committee says Rio TV coverage is going to 154 countries, up from 115 in 2012.

And despite initial concerns that the troubled Brazilian economy might lead to disappointing Paralympic ticket sales, the event has already sold more than 1.9 million tickets – second in Paralympic history and trailing only the 2.7 million tickets sold in London 2012.

Such broad exposure, suggests Johnson, makes sense for a global athletic event whose entrants might have come to the Paralympics because of unusual personal backgrounds but are, ultimately, elite competitors. Says Johnson: “They want to be seen as great athletes first, not talk about their disabilities.”

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