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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

The Press Newspaper

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Olympic Bronze Medalist Zena Cole is already looking forward to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Oregon woman returned last week from a month in London where she won a bronze medal in the Paralympic Games and set a new Americas record for the discus throw for a quadriplegic.

Zena arrived back in Oregon at 1 a.m. Monday night. No crowd welcomed her at the airport in Detroit, just her brother and the two nieces she has been raising as her daughters. Nor, was there any rest after a month competing against the best Paralympians in the world. Zena boarded a plane Thursday heading to Washington D.C. to meet with President Barack Obama and attend a reception for all of Team USA.

ZenaCole
Zena Cole with her Bronze Medal for the 2012
Paralympics.

Zena took a few minutes from her whirlwind schedule to talk about her experiences. She said she broke her own Americas record for her class with a throw of 5.25 meters (18.04 feet). Josie Pearson of Australia won gold with a throw of 6.58 meters.

More than 4,200 athletes from 165 countries competed in such sports as swimming, volleyball, rowing, fencing, rugby, shooting, cycling and track and field. The two-week event was shown live on television and on-line. About 2.7 million tickets were sold and the final ceremonies featuring Rihanna, Jay-Z and Cold Play were sold out.

Zena is one of 19 members of the women’s track and field team. She is the oldest at 55. Gold medal winner Josie Pearson is 26. But, Zena is not conceding the future to the younger Pearson, nor anyone else.

“There are a lot of young folks out there coming in and the competition is going to get tougher. I’ll just have to get tougher right along with them,” she said.

Zena competes in the quadriplegic category (F-51). She’s been in a wheelchair since age 14, a victim of polio. But, prior to that, when she was on crutches, she developed a love for sports playing neighborhood pick-up games with her brothers.

In 1979, at age 22, she started participating in wheelchair sports with the Toledo Marathon Silver Streaks. She juggled sports with her responsibilities as a single parent to three nieces while working for Goodwill Industries and the State of Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation.

That love of sport has been part of her life since. She currently works out every other day with Thera-bands and a balance ball. Afterwards, she practices throwing the discus and club (similar to the hammer).

“Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I can’t get out there and do it, and maybe do it better,” she said.

That pursuit and an active lifestyle has been a part of Zena’s approach to life ever since she can remember. She grew up one of nine children in Toledo’s north end. She contracted polio at 18 months old, but says her mother and siblings didn’t coddle her, nor shun her. If a playmate said she couldn’t play in a pick-up baseball game, the whole family wouldn’t play.

She also drew inspiration from her mother. She said, “My mother (Florence) always told me, `There’s nothing in your way. Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ Mine is, `Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.’”

As you can see, Zena has followed her mother’s advice and is passing that down to her “children.” Because of trying family circumstances, Zena has been the “mother” to three nieces. Two of them, ages 14 and 15, are still at home. One of the family pastimes is camping, which can sometimes lead to risk taking. That creates a conflict for Zena as she juggles her role as a protective mother with that of an active independent woman. “I have a really difficult time telling the younger ones, `Well, don’t do that because you can get hurt and end up in a wheelchair.’ They’ll say, `Well Mommy, you’re in a wheelchair and you do okay.’”

She has learned from sports “to be consistent and follow through.” She hopes her girls have noticed.

For Zena, sport has also meant something else. Due to mobility issues, quadriplegics can have difficulty feeling a part of the community. But, Paralympics brings people together. A lot of them. Her team competed in front of 80,000 enthusiastic fans.

“You think you’re in another country and you’re not going to get the support and cheers, but the crowd was screaming and chanting for everybody. They made us feel so welcome. All the countries pulled together. It was great.”


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