TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — How does it feel to spend years working towards a successful career, attaining it and then losing it all in one moment?
Darda Sales knows.
Sales started her swimming career in 1992 with the goal of attending the Paralympics. She did just that – three times. Sales brought home the gold medal and broke the world record for the 4×100 medley relay team in her first Paralympic games in 2000 in Sydney. Two Paralympics and one world championship later, she had a gold, silver and bronze medal to add to her collection.
In 2009, Darda got the news from her doctor that the pain she was feeling in her left forearm was compartment syndrome, an injury that would effectively end her swimming career.
“It felt like I was experiencing a death in my life,” Sales said. “I went through all the stages of grief and mourning. Something I had dedicated my entire life to was suddenly gone and I felt truly lost.”
The Paralympian had her medals but also had to face the reality that she would never get to compete at the Paralmypic level again. Or so she thought.
The University of Alabama’s Adapted Athletics program is one of the strongest of its kind in the nation. In the 12 years since its inception, 19 former and current players and coaches from the University of Alabama have represented their respective countries – the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Germany – in past Paralympic games. For the 2016 Rio games, UA has six current athletes, nine former athletes and coaches and three incoming athletes who have qualified. Two more still have a chance to qualify.
Every athlete’s journey in life has been different, but their goal is the same: the Paralympics.
“Going to the Paralympics is the pinnacle of our sport,” said Mackenzie Soldan, UA women’s basketball and tennis player. “The best of the best are there, so just being a part of that is such an honor, and, from a competitor’s standpoint, the biggest accomplishment one can achieve.”
Almost half of the players on the University of Alabama wheelchair basketball teams come from different countries like Canada and Australia, where there are no college sports, let alone adapted college sports. Most of the players’ only opportunities to play adapted sports are through rehabilitation facilities, club teams or if they’re good enough, for their respective national teams. This leads to heavy international recruiting by adapted programs in the United States.
“Several players on the Canadian National team have come to Alabama in the past several years and they spoke very highly about how playing at Alabama helped improve their skills, which was something I was looking for with it being a Paralympic year,” Sales said.
Many of UA’s international players have been to the Paralympics before, and most for sports other than basketball. Sales swam in three previous Paralympics, bringing home gold and silver medals. Michael Auprince swam in the 2012 London games and brought gold and bronze medals home to Australia. Soldan represented the United States in tennis in the 2012 London games. Jannik Blair and Maude Jacques both played basketball in 2012 London games. That group, along with freshman Arinn Young, has qualified to compete at the Rio summer games for basketball.
Many adapted athletes have the freedom and discipline to focus on more than one sport and ultimately compete at the Olympic level. Sales, a graduate student and women’s wheelchair basketball player at the University of Alabama, found her dual-sport calling while trying to relax from competitive swimming and just in time to keep her Paralympic dreams alive.
“I started playing wheelchair basketball recreationally in 2009 as a means of doing something outside of competitive swimming as a type of cross training and mental stress relief,” Sales said.
That same year, Sales was faced with the reality that she could no longer competitively swim. She no longer played for leisure but for medals–a medal she is determined to win in Rio.