It's not every day that Valley business professionals have an opportunity to compete alongside U.S. gold medalists. But this week, about 80 men and women are getting their chance.
It's not every day that Valley business professionals have an opportunity to compete alongside U.S. gold medalists.
But this week, about 80 men and women are getting their chance.
Scott Hogsett and April Holmes, two Paralympic gold medalists, came to Mesa's Broadway Recreation Center as part of the "Paralympic Experience," a training event designed to dispel misconceptions about people living with disabilities.
Set up by The Hartford Financial Services Group, the event brings in able-bodied professionals to play wheelchair basketball, sit volleyball and wheelchair sprints.
"It helps business people have a better understanding," Hogsett said.
The experience had the desired effect. Within minutes on the court, many of the participants began wrestling with their wheelchairs and fighting for breath.
Chris Stillman, a human resource specialist at PetSmart Inc. in Phoenix, said the experience was an eye-opener. For years, he volunteered as a football coach at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale.
That wasn't as difficult as playing basketball in a wheelchair, he said.
"I have a new perspective," Stillman said. "It's just so hard to move around in the chair. And you have to move quickly to be competitive."
The three-day event, which runs through Thursday, is open to businesses that either sold Hartford's disability insurance or offered it to employees. The goal is that the professionals who sell employee benefits will have a better grasp on what it is like to live with a disability, said Gary Robbins, a Phoenix-based Hartford regional sales manager.
They also get to know the athletes.
Hogsett, who resides in Tempe with his wife, passed around the gold medal he won in wheelchair rugby at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games
"People ask me all the time, 'Is your medal the same as Michael Phelps' medal?'" he said, smiling. "Well, hell, yeah, it is."
Hogsett was nationally recognized even before he brought home the gold. He was a star in the 2005 film, "Murderball," a documentary that won an Academy Award nomination.
The film documented Hogsett and the U.S. wheelchair rugby team as they earned the bronze medal in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
After falling just short in 2004, the victory in Beijing was that much sweeter, he said.
Although the business professionals did not get to play "murderball" - a sport in which wheelchairs serve more as battering rams than anything else - they didn't hold back in basketball, volleyball and the sprints.
"They may look pretty awkward out there," Hogsett said. "But you know they're trying hard."
The teams were split into two teams of five - one headed by Hogsett, the other headed by April Holmes, a Paralympic track and field world-record holder. The winners of the three competitions get gold medals and the losing team gets silver.
But most business people want that gold.
"These people are from competing sales firms, so they want to win," said Robbins of Hartford. "It can get pretty intense."
Hartford is the leading U.S. seller of group disability insurance and has sponsored the U.S. Paralympics since 2003. Hartford travels the nation to set up the "Paralympic Experience" for business professionals.
"It makes you realize how challenging it is for these athletes," said Kari Valdez of TriWest Healthcare Alliance in Phoenix. "I really respect their hard work and dedication. It's quite a bit more difficult than you would think."