Above: Priscila Uppal at the Athletic Centre in Olympic Park, one of a sold-out 80,000-strong crowd awaiting the evening’s Paralympic events.
Perhaps Brent Poppen became aware of the power of his own personal narrative after filmmakers followed his U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team to document their activities in Murderball, because he has since added the titles “author,” “motivational speaker,” “teacher” and “rehabilitation counsellor” to the list of his athletic achievements, which includes competition in two Paralympic Games in two different sport categories (Wheelchair Rugby and Wheelchair Tennis).
Tragedy on the Mountain: A Quadriplegic’s Journey from Paralysis to Paralympics is his first book, a memoir in the inspirational athlete genre, but of course with the twist that Poppen had never imagined himself competing for his country as an athlete in a wheelchair. Athletically gifted since childhood, Poppen was simply horsing around and wrestling with a friend at a Christian camp at Lake Hume in California when a freak accident occurred and rendered him paralyzed for life. He was helicoptered to the hospital, without the love or comfort of his parents who were miles away. There, the arc of his original narrative took a violent plot turn with unexpected results, including that his popularity at school actually grew after the accident as everyone felt they knew his tragic story while Poppen himself struggled to accept his new identity.
The memoir is intended to give advice and inspiration to young people. Not just those who are living with physical challenges of the sort Poppen has experienced (although of course I think the book would make a great gift to a young person who is dealing with physical rehabilitation), but also to the general youth who might be dealing with the confusing arc of growing up and determining what kind of person you want to be in the world, what kind of values you want to cultivate, and what kind of character you want to build. While there are some detailed explications of sport and of Poppen’s gruelling training sessions in the memoir, there are also words of advice and comfort and anecdotes to illustrate how Poppen has managed to maintain his optimism, his humour, and his health under stressful conditions.
He is a born teacher, and teaches both in the school system as a substitute teacher and in his roles as motivational speaker and rehabilitation counsellor to children and young people. He is also an avid water skier and teaches this sport as well. And he will soon be breaking into new territory as a children’s author of a series called Playground Lessons. The first book is subtitled Friendship and Forgiveness and features a boy in a wheelchair playing soccer on the cover, offering positive representations of the lives of disabled children. As someone who has had a very hard time locating imaginative novels or short stories that feature disabled athletes as characters to highlight in this blog (and please do send me an email if you know of any), I’m glad to see Poppen exploring this territory, which could contribute to community building as well as to children’s literature.
All of which leads one to believe that Poppen has indeed ended up at a higher place than the place from which he fell, one of his personal mottos. Although a blood infection knocked Poppen’s health off track again and has caused him to miss competing in the London Paralympic Games, he is still hopeful that he might compete in Rio in 2016. And even if that dream doesn’t materialize, I’m sure he’ll be imagining new ways to make his mark in the world, particularly on young people, through his example and his words.