Latter-day Saints in the Paralympics, days 4 & 5: Gold in track, silver in wheelchair rugby and making history in swimming

The Paralympics turned golden at Olympic Stadium this weekend for a four-time Paralympian who continued his winning streak on the track. The USA wheelchair rugby team won silver after losing its first match of the Games.

Athletes connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also set personal records or made Paralympic history for their countries on the fencing piste and in the pool in days four and five of the Games in Tokyo. 

Track 

United States’ Isaac Jean-Paul, left, and Ireland’s Jason Smyth compete in their heat of the T13 men’s 100 meters during the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.
United States’ Isaac Jean-Paul, left, and Ireland’s Jason Smyth compete in their heat of the T13 men’s 100 meters during the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. Credit: Eugene Hoshiko, Associated Press

Ireland’s Jason Smyth narrowly defended his gold medal from 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by one hundredth of a second in the 100-meter, T13 division (for visual impairments), on Sunday, Aug. 29. His time of 10.53 seconds is his season’s best. He led during the race with Skander Athmani of Algeria narrowing in during the last 50 meters. Athmani’s time was 10.54 seconds.  

It’s Smyth’s fourth consecutive Parlympic gold medal in the 100-meter, T13, race. 

Smyth, 34, of Ireland, set both the world and Paralympic records of 10.46 seconds in the 2012 London Games. He won gold in the 100-meter, T13 division, in 2008 in Beijing, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio. He was diagnosed with Stargardts disease when he was 8 years old and is legally blind.

Margarita Faundez of Chile and guide Francisco Segovia wave prior to competing in the women’s 1,500-meter T11 round 1 heat 1 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.
Margarita Faundez of Chile and guide Francisco Segovia wave prior to competing in the women’s 1,500-meter T11 round 1 heat 1 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. Credit: Screenshot via nbcolympics.com

Chile’s Margarita Faundez had a season’s best time of 5:46.50 in the 1,500-meter, T11 (for visual impairments) preliminary heats as she raced with guide Francisco Segovia on Sunday, Aug. 29. Race guides, who are connected to the runner at the hand or wrist, are required in the T11 division. She was 10th overall, and six runners will race in Monday’s final. 

Faundez, 33, of Santiago, was diagnosed at 5 years old with retinitis pigmentosa, which is a degenerative eye disorder. Tokyo is her second Paraympics. 

Wheelchair rugby 

Josh Wheeler of the United States passes the ball during the wheelchair rugby gold-medal match against Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Josh Wheeler of the United States passes the ball during the wheelchair rugby gold-medal match against Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Shuji Kajiyama, Associated Press

Team USA, including Josh Wheeler, won silver medals after battling Great Britain in the match for the gold medal on Sunday, Aug. 29. USA made the first try, or point, of the game but Great Britain tied and then pulled ahead. USA tied it several times in the third and fourth quarters, but Great Britain won 54-49 in the hard-fought match with wheelchairs clashing and overturning. In the preliminary pool play match on Friday, USA came from behind in the final minutes to beat Great Britain. 

In the gold-medal match, Wheeler, 41, played 32 minutes — the entire match — and scoring 21 tries, plus a couple of trips to the penalty box. The Arizona resident broke his neck in a motorcycle accident 15 years ago that caused him to lose function in his lower body.

USA beat Australia 49-42 in the semifinals on Saturday, Aug. 28. Australia won gold in double overtime in 2016 at the Paralympics in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, when Team USA, including Wheeler, was the silver medalist. On Saturday, USA led in the match against Australia and Wheeler played 28 minutes, scoring nine tries. 

Great Britain becomes the first European team to win Paralympic gold. In the bronze-medal match on Sunday, Japan beat Australia 60-52

Wheelchair rugby combines elements of rugby, football (throwing the ball and getting the ball in the goal area), basketball (dribbling the ball) and hockey (penalty boxes and crashing into each other). Wheeler’s classification is a 2.5, with 3.5 the highest mobility, and teams are allowed four players with a total of up to 8 on the court.

Swimming 

Lourdes Alejandra Aybar of the Dominican Republic, front, competes in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, SB6, round 1, heat 2, at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021.
Lourdes Alejandra Aybar of the Dominican Republic, front, competes in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, SB6, round 1, heat 2, at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Credit: Screenshot via nbcolympics.com

When Lourdes Alejandra Aybar dove in for the 100-meter breaststroke, SB6 (for physical impairments), heat on Saturday, Aug. 28, she became the first swimmer representing the Dominican Republic to compete in the Paralympics. With her time of 1:53.25, she was sixth in her heat and 11th overall. The top eight of the 11 swimmers qualified to compete in the finals. 

Aybar, 32, is competing in her first Paralympics. The native of Azua, Dominican Republic, who is an industrial engineer, is 4 foot 3 inches tall, has brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as crystal bone disease.

She is scheduled to swim in the 50-meter freestyle S8 preliminary heats and finals on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and the 100-meter butterfly S8 the preliminary heats and finals on Friday, Sept. 3.

Goalball 

Team USA, including Daryl Walker, won 13-5 against Algeria on Sunday, Aug. 29, in the preliminary pool round, coming back after a loss to Japan on Friday, Aug. 27. Walker scored two points, including one on a penalty throw, and played for 15 minutes. 

Walker, who hails from Florida and trains in Indiana, has albinoism that affects his eyesight and is legally blind. He was part of the team that won silver in 2016 in Rio. 

Goalball, a game designed for the visually challenged, is played on a court about the size of a volleyball court with textured lines and a ball that’s about the size of a basketball with bells and holes in it. Each team is allowed three players on the court and all players wear darkened visors to equalize visual ability as they defend their goal that is 9 meters, or 9.8 yards, long and 1.3 meters, or 1.4 yards, high and throw the ball to score points. The game is comprised of two 12-minute halves. 

The 10 goalball teams are divided into groups and each team plays all of the teams in its pool. Team USA (2-1) is in Group A with Brazil (3-1), Japan (3-1), Algeria (0-3-1) and Lithuania (0-2-1). The top four teams from each pool move on to the quarterfinals. 

Team USA’s next preliminary-round game is Monday, Aug. 30, against Lithuania. 

Sitting volleyball

Canada, including field player Payden Vair, won 3-1 against Italy in the preliminary Pool A round on Sunday, Aug. 29. Canada won the first two sets 25-16 and 25-14, lost the third 15-25 and won the fourth 25-18. Vair, 22, played during the second, third and fourth sets. 

Vair, of Alberta, was a collegiate soccer player and was introduced to sitting volleyball following a lawn mower accident that resulted in the amputation of her right leg below her knee. 

Sitting volleyball is similar to indoor volleyball and has a lower net (just higher than a meter, or about 41 inches, for women) and a slightly smaller court. 

The eight women’s sitting volleyball teams are divided into two pools and each team plays the other three teams in the pool. Canada (1-1) is in Pool A with Italy (1-1), Brazil (2-0) and Japan (0-2). The top two teams from each pool move to the semifinals. 

Canada’s next match is against Japan on Wednesday, Sept. 1. 

Wheelchair fencing 

Shelby Jensen, left, Ellen Geddes and Terry Hayes are part of Team USA’s wheelchair fencing team competing in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Shelby Jensen, left, Ellen Geddes and Terry Hayes are part of Team USA’s wheelchair fencing team competing in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Credit: Ginny Boydston

With their eight-place finish in the team women’s foil tournament, Shelby Jensen and her teammates Ellen Geddes and Terry Hayes wrapped up their team competitions with a spot in the U.S. fencing history books — it’s the first U.S. women’s team to compete at the Paralympics in foil since 2004. 

The trio was also the first U.S. women’s team to compete in the team epee competition since 2004. 

The foil is the lightest of the three weapons, and is derived from a court sword, according to olympics.com

In the preliminary round, the eight teams were divided into two pools and Team USA faced teams from Italy, Hong Kong and the Ukraine on Sunday, Aug. 29. The team from Italy won bronze and Hong Kong was fourth.  

Each match has nine bouts, with each fencer facing off against all three fencers from the other team with a maximum time of three minutes for each bout. Each fencer is seated in a wheelchair fastened to the floor and can move their upper bodies as they attack, guard, parry and engage. 

Jensen, of Salt Lake City, who is a five-time national champion, is paralyzed on her right side due to strokes she had when she was 7 years old. She started fencing when she was 15 and fences left-handed. The first-time Paralympian is engaged and planning a September wedding. She competed in the individual saber and epee tournaments and the team epee event.

The epee is the heaviest of the three fencing weapons and is like a dueling sword. The sabre is derived from the cavalry sword. 

Upcoming competitions

In goalball, Team USA’s next preliminary-round game is Monday, Aug. 30, against Lithuania, and the quarterfinals begin on Tuesday, Aug. 31. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, Australia’s Todd Hodgetts competes in shot put, F20 (intellectual impairments) and USA’s Taylor Talbot, is scheduled to run in the 100-meter T13 (visual impairment) race.

Read more of Church News’ coverage of athletes connected to the Church competing in the Paralympics