The woman to my left wants to know what happened to me.
We’re in a cycling studio, where for one hour we’ve been pedaling away, dripping sweat, with disco lights strobing across the spandex-clad instructor at the front of the class.
I recite my familiar script while struggling to unbuckle a heavy shoe. I lost my leg at 4; I wear a prosthesis; no, it wasn’t cancer; yes, it goes all the way up; no, it doesn’t hurt; no, I don’t know that woman who was on “Dancing With the Stars,” or the other lady on the other show who tap danced and was maybe married to a Beatle; and oh, how great that you had an uncle who wore a wooden leg who had a good sense of humor in spite of all that; yeah, bummer about that famous handsome athlete with no legs who killed his girlfriend. “Gives them a bad name,” the woman says, shaking her head.
I’m used to fielding these questions, used to being lumped in as one of “them,” although I find tap dancing irritating and have zero in common with a South African male double amputee professional sprinter convicted of murder. I’m so practiced at telling my story that I anticipate my cycle mate’s response before I hear it. “Well, you’re an inspiration! If you can do it, no excuse for me!”
My new buddy presses her hand to her heart before raising it high in the air for a sweaty fist bump. I slap on my widest fake smile, manage to yank off my cleated spinning shoe, and say, “Woot!” as a way of signaling conversation over but even as I do I have a sinking feeling that I’m about to be having more conversations like this everywhere — or at least more than usual. It’s Paralympics time again.
The Games begin in Rio on Sept. 7, which means that the bodies of disabled athletes will soon be beaming into living rooms everywhere, and that for nearly two weeks we will not be described as “the disabled,” as if we were part of a misshapen, drooling horde à la “The Walking Dead.” No, we will be overcomers. We will be inspirations. We will be superstars. We will be heroes! We may even have theme songs.