Journey to Glory: A Duke's road to Rio

Published: Aug. 17, 2016 at 5:30 PM EDT
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The Olympics wrap up this coming Sunday, but Rio will have another show to put on next month when the city hosts the Paralympics.

Earlier this year, several members of Team USA, including a former JMU Duke, stopped by in Harrisonburg to share their stories. And they're each making a return to the Games.

“This is my way of representing my country,” U.S. sitting volleyball player Eric Duda said. “Having been on the national team for 12 years now, I love spreading the word that we are athletes first. Then hopefully, you see our disability second.”

Duda grew up without his left hand. His Paralympic teammates share similar stories of overcoming physical disabilities.

Trevon Jenifer, a wheelchair basketball player, was born with a disease called congenital phocomelia.

“It's the underdevelopment of my limbs when I was in my mom's womb,” Jenifer said.

And Adam Ballou, a Paralympic soccer player, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant.

“[My parents] didn't know how it would manifest,” Ballou said. “They didn't know how severe it would be.”

Duda, Jenifer and Ballou are all headed to Rio, representing the United States Paralympic team.

Ballou's journey to Rio went through Harrisonburg, where he graduated from JMU in 2015.

"I carry a little piece of JMU with me always,” Ballou said. “This place is the best years of my life so far. I have had incredible experiences with the Paralympic team but JMU has shaped me into the person that I am.”

Soccer pretty much found Ballou, whose parents made sure that their son wasn't defined by the disease he was diagnosed with at six months old.

“My parents pretty much raised me and they said like 'Adam, CP, that doesn't define you. Anything that you want to do, put your mind to it and don't use CP as a barrier to achieving your goals,'” Ballou said. “They didn't know what my physical abilities were going to be but fortunately I was developed relatively normal as a kid and was able to play soccer on youth teams growing up."

His love for the game fueled the talent of this Virginia Beach-native, leading to a spot on the national team and a trip to London.

"It was the experience of a lifetime. The village was just incredible. The atmosphere. Representing the United States is just a dream come true,” Ballou said. “Everybody dreams as a kid of being a professional athlete or representing your country at the highest level."

Ballou is headed to his second Paralympics, joining his American teammates who have their own goals in Rio.

The U.S. men's sitting volleyball team is making its first Paralympic appearance in 12 years.

"Missing out in 2008 and 2012, this is a well-fought journey for us,” Duda said. “When we did qualify, I think everyone broke down in tears, it was an amazing feeling.”

And the United States men's wheelchair basketball team hasn't won gold since 1988.

“We still have a lot of work we got to do and I think that we have a team to win a gold medal,” Jenifer said.

These Paralympians hope to have an even bigger impact that can't be measured in medals.

“I want to see it on the same scale as the Olympic Games,” Jenifer said. “We're athletes. We put time and effort into this and that's what we want everyone else to see.”

“If we can break through and just say hey, look at all of these amazing stories, from all these different countries, then hopefully people start realizing what we're about," Duda said.

As for Ballou's story, he's about to write the next chapter.

"You've trained your entire life for this. This is our goal,” Ballou said. “It's going to be such an honor to do that for the United States, knowing that your family is somewhere up there in a crowd of 80 thousand people, and they've been there right for you since the very beginning."