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Saturday, September 2, 2000

Yes, their world records are on the line at Sydney, too

 The sign at the Atlanta Olympics four years ago was compelling. For each of American decathletes Bruce Jenner and Dan O'Brien, it showed two track shoes and their high-jump personal best.

 And then there was one track shoe and the height reached between theirs by one-legged jumper Arnie Boldt of Thompson, Man. -- six feet 8* inches.

 Too often we see the wheelchair or the disability before we see the athlete.

 Too often we see Olympic Games excitement without noting that two weeks after they're over, the Paralympics begins a competition every bit as fiery at the same site.

 So, when such people as London swimmers Adam Purdy and Darda Geiger and the rest go to Sydney, they'll be there to defend their world records as well as win gold medals. And they'll be doing it after training regimens, the equal of all the athletes in the "other" Olympics.

 The London area team members who gathered at the Lambeth home of Doug Dittmer on Thursday were typical competitive athletes. That is to say, lots of kidding -- even about various infirmities -- and no end of rock-hard resolve.

 "Plenty of time has been put into the pool and the gym," said Purdy, who established his world backstroke record three years ago in the Dutch Open and surpassed it with a time of 1:17.1 at Etobicoke.

 "We've been working our butts off," added the 19-year-old with a joint disorder known as arthrogryposis.

 Brad Sales of Woodstock hopes he doesn't absorb a kick in his. Like rookies anywhere, the 17-year-old backstroker will be subject to something Purdy and the veterans promise they have in store for their Australian training camp.

 He has been without a leg since birth.

 "I could come up with a good story, though," he laughed. "Hey, how about a wolf attacked me in the woods and chewed it off?"

 Dittmer, a physician who specializes in rehabilitation, will be going to his third Paralympics as deputy chief resident.

 Along with basketball coach Paul Bowes and swimming coach Andrew Craven, he knows the relaxed manner in which these accomplished athletes handle their physical encumbrances.

 Some of the cracks heard from time to time:

 -- A one-legged athlete, after a lengthy debate with two double amputees, breaks everyone up by saying, "You haven't got a leg to stand on."

 -- A female athlete with a prosthesis talks about using furniture wax, not a depilatory.

 And on it goes, little shots among athletes very comfortable within themselves. In the relaxed setting of a backyard barbecue, it was clear all of Purdy, Geiger, Sales, Tammy McLeod (bocce ball), Andy Shaw (athletics), Maria Dannhaeuser (swimming) and Elisabeth Walker (swimming) are athletes first, not athletes with blonde hair or eye-glasses or -- oh yes, disabilities.

 "We were at Humber College playing a game and some of the national basketball team players were there," Bowes recalled.

 "When they saw how fast and competitive the players were, they were shouting, 'Did you see that?' and giving high fives."

 There is little doubt in coach Craven's mind that the 24-member swim team will lead the way for Canada.

  "We expect to be the nation to beat in Sydney," he said.

 "What you have to keep in mind is many of our swimmers are very competitive in able-bodied competition. We train the same 20 hours a week."

 Sprinter Andy Shaw of Wingham, whose 13.1 seconds for the 100 metres is seventh-best in the world, also will throw the javelin at his first Paralympics. Like the rest, he will be watching the Olympics unfold Sept. 15.

 How many Olympians, one wondered, will be watching the Paralympics?