Almost halfway through the 2012 Paralympic Games, it's pretty clear that despite the absence of interlocking rings, the athletes who have won more than 200 medals so far have demonstrated truly Olympic competitiveness and determination.
Of course, London hosting this year's games marks a return to the roots of the Paralympics, which had their genesis some 64 years ago in Stoke Mandeville, a quaint village just northwest of the greater London area and home to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital rehabilitation facility (in a nod to that history, this year's Paralympics mascot is named Mandeville).
The 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games — the creation of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist who had moved to England during World War II — involved only British competitors, all of them veterans with spinal-cord injuries. Four years later at the same location, participants from the Netherlands made it the first true international athletic competition dedicated to athletes with disabilities. In 1960, in Rome, the Paralympic Games as we know them today were launched.
London earned widespread praise for the way it hosted the 2012 Olympic Games — with brilliant venues and well-organized schedules — and it is getting a solid second crack with the Paralympics, which are expected to draw a total of 4,200 athletes from 164 nations. They are competing in 20 events (against other athletes with similar levels of disability, denoted by number and letter combinations).
Ticket sales to the 2012 Games far surpassed any previous Paralympics, with many events sold out before the Opening Ceremony The jam-packed Olympic Stadium that was lucky enough to see some superhuman performances a few weeks ago by the likes of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis is again being treated to electric performances by the world's top Paralympians.
About 80,000 people witnessed the extraordinary 200-meter T44 final, where the Brazilian runner Alan Oliveira pipped Oscar Pistorious to the gold medal. Anyone who says these games haven't captured the imagination of the general public wouldn't have felt that way during their epic encounter. The stadium was incredibly loud.
Pistorious is probably the most famous Paralympian due to his well-documented successful journey to compete in this year's Olympic Games as well as the Paralympics. He came to these games as defending champion in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters. Add these gold medals to the bronze and gold he won in Athens eight years ago, and you would think he is one of the most decorated Paralympians in history. Not even close!
Meet 5 of the most decorated Paralympic medalists:
1. Trischa Zorn (swimming, USA): Michael Phelps might have a sore arm from patting himself on the back for his swimming exploits, but even he has to take a bow to Trischa Zorn. Blind from birth, Zorn won 51 (yes, FIFTY-ONE) medals, 37 of them gold, over her Paralympics career between 1980 and 2004. Like Phelps, Zorn dominated the medley events, demonstrating that versatility shows no bounds. Incredible.
2. Beatrice Hess (swimming, France): Beatrice Hess, who has cerebral palsy, won 23 medals in the pool during the same era as Zorn, dominating the backstroke and freestyle events. Swimming in the S4 disability category (swimmers who do not use their legs), Hess broke 9 world records at the 2000 Sydney Games alone.
3. Mike Kenny (swimming, Great Britain): The pool wasn't a gold mine for Team GB during the recent Olympic Games. In fact, the sport has only produced 9 British gold medalists since 1912 (Rebecca Adlington, with her two golds in 2008, is Team GB's most successful swimmer ever). However, Mike Kenny's 16 gold medals make him not only Britain's most decorated Paralympics swimmer but also its most successful Paralympian, period. He won his first gold in Toronto in 1976 and his final one in the 1988 Seoul Games at the age of 43. In contrast, Michael Phelps has retired at age 27.
4. Franz Nietlispach (athletics, Switzerland). Moving away from the pool, one of the most decorated Paralympians from Track & Field is Nietlispach, who has won 14 golds, 6 silvers and 2 bronze medals over the course of a staggering nine Paralympic Games. Competing in wheelchair disciplines, distance was not a factor for Franz — he won gold in the Marathon, 800 meters and 1500 meters, to name a few. He has also won 5 Boston Marathons; now that is just plain greedy!
5. Chantal Petitclerc (athletics, Canada): Rounding out my five decorated athletes is Petiticlerc, who won 21 medals during a 16-year Paralympic career — 14 of them gold. Racing in the T54 category (lower-limb paralysis), Petitclerc dominated the 100 meter and 200 meter wheelchair disciplines in addition to longer distances such as the 400 meters, 800 meters and 1500 meters, making her one of the most versatile wheelchair athletes in Paralympics history. She still holds the 100 meter world record.
The Paralympic Games conclude Sept. 9. Follow the action on Yahoo Sports to see who we might be talking about in a similar vein four years from now.
by Matt Goff
Top: Raymond Martin of the U.S. celebrates winning gold in the Men's 400m - T52 Final during the 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium in London. (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)