Disability Doesn’t Define Us: An Interview with Paralympian Gold Medalist Darlene Hunter, PhD.
How do we define someone who has amazing balance, motivation, tenacity, hard work – a leader who is breaking barriers, an activist, and the definition not be primarily focused on that person’s outwards appearance to quantify the “level” of how inspirational one is? I requested an interview with someone who inspired me, who has touched my life with her story, she showed me that the only limitations one has are the ones that you impose upon yourself.
Darlene Hunter is an amazing human being, she has never let her physical disability limit what she wants from life or what she achieves – she is not only a professor at University of North Texas in Arlington, but personally runs a couple of non-profits, as well as sitting on multiple non-profit boards. All on top of training and competing at the highest level, in three Paralympics for the United States Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team. In 2016, her team won gold in Rio De Janeiro and this year, after being postponed due to the pandemic in 2020, she will be attending as part of the women’s wheelchair basketball team going to the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics on August 17, 2021.
She is quick to note that her current success was greatly impacted by the team that surrounds her and motivates her, that without them, she would not be where she is today. She has accomplished so much, yet still feels that her job is incomplete. She has plans to continue fighting for disability rights, even after she is done competing at a professional level, so that she can leave the sport better than when she entered it. She wants to plan for the future generations of young, disabled, female athletes and ensure that they do not have to experience similar hardships on their paths to pursuing their dreams.
One of the first questions that I had to ask was how she has uniquely balanced the different aspects of her life while still upholding a normal working schedule, training schedule, and acting as an activist for disability rights. She laughed, stating that there were always more requests for her time than she could handle, which is the one element that she never has enough of, and what has helped her keep this schedule has been the assistance of her team around her.
“Right now, today I am at my max, personally, because we’re hosting a women’s Nationals next week and we’re bringing in the National Championships – [we’re flying in] 6 teams [who are] coming in next week for the national championship. And the day that it is over literally, on the 25th [of July], we will be playing a National Championship game and within 4 hours get on a plane and go to [participate in] USA Basketball.
It is a lot right now. And I am teaching still, so I have my classes at University of Texas Arlington, where I am [a professor] so [there] is a lot on my plate. But you just make a schedule, and as long as you get it in, you just keep going until everything is done.
I have an issue with saying no… I just do not like to watch opportunities pass by because I think it is so important to get the Paralympic movement out there. And it is important to empower women in sports. And it is so important to see disabled individuals doing ‘normal-activities’, so we can have a better perspective of what people with disabilities can reach and achieve, versus just putting us at home and saying, ‘Hey you can’t come out because of what society thinks of you.’ So, it is really just breaking barriers attitudinally, as well as physically…
I have been really lucky to be at the University of Texas Arlington, [the University] has a really good wheelchair basketball program, so there’s great people who push me every day at scrimmages and in general, to help me with my athletic ability and hold me accountable. They say they are going to go lift [weights], do you want to go lift [weights]? It has helped that I have accountability people as well, they [tell me that] we are scrimmaging now so come up and play. [It helps me] so that I set aside what I am doing.
[But] I write a lot of apologetic emails at a lot of times saying – hey I am sorry that I did not get back to you, I am doing the best I can, and a lot of people are forgiving, so I have a lot of forgiving people in my life as well.”
Which brought our conversation towards us discussing the hot topic of what happened last year, in 2020, during the pandemic and how it impacted everyone in their daily lives. What did it mean for an athlete, at the top of their game, who has dedicated large quantities of time and effort, to be told that the Paralympics were going to be cancelled or postponed?
I wanted her opinion on how she and her team overcame that mental barrier, how they were able to push past the wall of inactivity due to being stuck at home and came to terms with the fact that they were not sure that they would have an opportunity to show their efforts to the world – that the Paralympics might not take place at all.
“I was thinking that I was going to be done playing basketball at the end of 2020 at an elite level, I was ready, I had taken off from 2016 to 2019 – we won gold, I wasn’t planning on coming back. And then I came back, because I always tell people [that] basketball is my drug right now and it is so hard to walk away from it when you are…still able to compete.
My body is still holding up and I am not sore, and I am able to get better… this is probably the best that I have been playing in my whole life at 39 years old, which is a pretty incredible statement to be able to say. That I am getting better and instead of getting worse at my age… I have been able to maintain my health, really, it is about my health – being disabled, when you do not stay healthy you put on weight, and it becomes more of a disability than the actual disability that you have.
I have been really lucky that I have good people around me who continue to push me and support me, and my family and my friends, [that] allow me to have this lifestyle. So, when I came back in 2019, I was like I am going to do a Para-Pan Am, in Lima, Peru, and I am going to do Paralympics and then I will be done…
Then COVID hit, and everything got put on hold, it was really heartbreaking to think that we might not even have the Paralympics because they were cancelling it and did not know if they were really going to push it forward.
It is really exciting that all the hard work that we been putting in over the year, we were doing virtual [training] – United States Olympics and Paralympics Committee gave us a really good strength and conditioning Trainer and a really good Nutritionist – [who] were meeting with us via zoom. We had weightlifting sessions 3 days a week, even though we could not get to a gym we were doing body weight and soup cans and 2-liter bottles and band [resistance] workouts, they got really creative with us to make sure that we stayed in shape…
We did weekly team calls, [every] other week to keep the team together mentally and emotionally. It  created this bond that was really special that I do not know we would have gotten if we did not have COVID, because we had to rely on each other in a different way to continue to work out.
It has been really fun to watch, and it is a really young team,  girls under the age of 25 right now, out of the 12 that are on the team – which is a pretty young team. I think our youngest is 16, and so it has been fun to watch them on this journey for the first time and how excited they are, and how much this means as a person going into their 3rd Paralympics.
But [on] keeping us focused, our coaches did a great job of keeping us focused and our support staff, [we had] even our support [Psychiatrist] working with us a couple of times throughout the year to make sure that we were all on track. We had a lot of supportive people to make sure that we were mentally and physically in the best possible place we could be going into [the 2021] Paralympics.
Everybody in the world is facing the same challenge[s], it is not just us [United States] and it has made it a lot easier that we are all going into the Paralympics with little competition against anybody else [friendly scrimmages]. Some countries have been shut down longer than other countries – so we are all in it together. I think that it is not that anyone has more of an advantage than others, it’s probably one of the [more] level playing fields going into the Paralympics that we’ve had.”
As astounded by her physical capacity to play at such an elite level, I was also amazed that she was able to be such a prominent professor for the University of Texas Arlington; I asked her what she thought of as her “proudest moment”, with no limitations.
Society tends to assume that people who have ‘overcome’ their disabilities, are only proud of a moment in time when they have changed the expectations of those around them. As humans, sometimes we can be surprised by the self-expression that individuals have, towards how they see themselves; the phrase comes to mind, do not judge a book by its cover.
Darlene had no hesitation and immediately had a response, which surprised me a little because it was something that I was not expecting and differed from how I had perceived her. I was not surprised that she is talented, hardworking and has accomplished a huge quantity of achievements; what surprised me was what she valued above all else, because it was something that she herself did not expect to accomplish.
“My proudest moment was when I finally graduated with my Ph.D. because that took a lot of time and energy. A lot of writing. [My proudest moment was getting] my Ph.D. because it was something that I did not ever know that I wanted to do, but once I did it, it was such an accomplishment.
But I also think the legacy, and this is not a proudest moment but a proudest thing – and that is the legacy that I am leaving behind for future women in the sport of wheelchair basketball. Trying to make the sport better than I left it. Coming in and making sure that there are opportunities and development and places for them to continue to play.”
Personally, I also hope to impact the world by spreading the vision of people like Darlene, who are trying to not only play an elite sport, but make sure that the world knows about it. People who help others understand disabilities, people who cheer on those of us that exceed the expectations of others – to become something more than what society defines them.
As our interview was coming to a close, I wanted to ask her what her thoughts were for those who are still hiding from life, from the outside world. For those that are struggling, ashamed of themselves, worries about what others [public] think of them. Those who choose to cut themselves off from leaving their homes. Those who are afraid to be a burden on their family and friends, scared of being uncomfortable or in uncomfortable situations, scorned, and even shunned or humiliated because of their disabilities.
What advice does she have, for those individuals who are living like this? And why do they need to stop putting pressure on themselves to be anything other than who and what they are, and instead focus on being a better version of themselves.
“I think that the biggest thing is you should try everything once, you don’t know what you like or don’t like until you try everything. I always tell people to try everything once, and I think [one big issue is to] get out of your house – there is nothing that says you have to hide in society, even though that’s kind of the perspective that some people have heard, and that disability is a bad thing.
I think that disability is a different way of life, and it makes you adapt and see life differently, but it is not a reason to stop living. I always tell people live your life and try everything that you want to do, you will never know what you like or do not like until you try it. There are so many different organizations, people, companies, and businesses that understand your life and will help you achieve what you want.”
As our conversation ended, I was genuinely sad to let her go, but happy to have spent the time talking about such important issues with such a skilled and talented individual. As we move into an age of inclusion, we need to ensure that we are not excluding anyone from society and sometimes that means reaching out to those in need who are not asking for help.
Darlene and I have also discussed many organizations that assist people with disability find sports and companionship, we want to ensure that there are links to those organizations, as well as a link to watch the 2021 Paralympics for free online – so that we can spread awareness of this awesome sport, amongst others and how important it is to support these programs.
Darlene and her team will be headed to Tokyo on August 17, 2021, for the Paralympics, to represent the United States in women’s wheelchair basketball; I only hope that they are successful in their pursuit of a medal, and that lots of people are able to watch her team on their road to victory.
To follow along with the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, visit this website below for more information, news, highlights and more. Watch and cheer for Team USA to win Gold in 2021.