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Don’t Diss My Ability: A Review of Rising Phoenix

by Rena Lenchitz (’23)

I want you to imagine a typical day either at school or work. In the winter months, you slip your arms and legs into jeans and jackets with ease. You then load your shoulders with a backpack filled with daily necessities and get ready to either walk or drive to your next destination. You ignite the keys in your car, place your hands firmly on the wheel, and press the gas. As you make your way to your destination, your mind drifts, and the ease of a daily routine barely crosses your meandering, mid-drive thoughts. You leave your car, gracefully climb the stairs, and push open the front door to the building.

Now, I want you to think critically about the routine you just imagined. That probably wasn’t an easy task for someone with a congenital or acquired physical impairment. Climbing stairs or dressing yourself are anything but mindless tasks for the athletes in Rising Phoenix.

This 2020 Netflix feature follows the history of the Paralympic games, as well as the games held in Rio in 2016. Originally beginning as a post-WWII effort to lift the spirits of those who suffered injuries in war, the Paralympic Games not only provided joy for those who were disheartened by their ailments, but provided much needed therapy and rehabilitation as vets assimilated into post-war living. The first-ever games focused on archery, a fairly accessible sporting event for those who were confined to a wheelchair.

Throughout the film, you’ll meet athletes such as Bebe Vio, a survivor of meningitis who fences on behalf of the country of Italy. After her legs and arms were amputated, she felt discouraged and defeated, no longer allowed to participate in her favorite activities like dancing and fencing. But you’ll soon see how her disability was anything but that.

You’ll meet Matt Stutzman, who not only arches with his feet, but drives with them as well. You’ll hear about how the portion of his brain dedicated to motor skills of his legs and feet is the size of a tennis ball (for reference, that part of the brain is the size of a pea of a fully able-bodied person.

You’ll swoon at Jonnie Peacock, whose charming good looks is matched by an equally bubbly personality. You’ll see how he united people across the United Kingdom after he sprinted to the finish line. You’ll be wowed by Tatyana McFadden, an adopted cyclist who felt pride on behalf of both her birth country of Russia and her home in the USA. You’ll have your breath taken away as Cui Zhe lifts 90 kg over her small but mighty frame. Finally, you’ll hear the adversities of simply surviving from Jean-Baptiste Alaize, who lost his legs and witnessed the brutal killing of his mother in the Burundi conflict of the mid-90s.

The film gives us a glimpse into the tireless efforts required to organize and host the Paralympics. You’ll learn about the controversy in 1980 in which Russia refused to host the games. You’ll be exposed to the near failure of the 2016 Paralympics, but nonetheless, the athletes and foundation persisted. From a purely production-based standpoint, the movie has beautiful shots of athletes leaping above ground in slow motion and running alongside cheetahs in the plains. Rising Phoenix is an homage to the artistic and awe-inducing displays of athleticism and unrelenting passion.

No one in this film lacks ability and if anything, it’s quite the opposite; we are all abled in different ways, and this piece made me much more conscious of that fact. Rising Phoenix reminds viewers of the true definition of adversity: no matter what comes our way, humans are dedicated to adapting and overcoming obstacles. To those who aspire to work in healthcare, I implore you to meet these athletes and hear their stories, listening closely and with an open mind. The Olympics might be where heroes are created, but the Paralympics is where heroes come.

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