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Partnership Pairing: Para Guide & the Poet (Jay Ward)by Tim Miner on October 7, 2021
“Being on a team is about mutual trust, constant communication.
It’s a cadence.
It’s the way you move.
Crossing the finish line is a synchronized dance set to the melody of footfalls against a trail,
Bicycle spokes whirring like locusts down a long road,
Your hands mastering the rhythm of splash.
Together, you make a song.” – A portion of Together written by poet Jay Ward for Para Guide
What do a poet and triathlon coaches have in common?
On first blush, we’ll agree that it sounds like precious little.
But, when you take into account creative gifts and a collective passion to help people, it turns out they can make magic together. And, that’s exactly what happened when Charlotte poet Jay Ward met the team at Para Guide, a local organization that supports adaptive athletes, primarily blind/visually impaired individuals, in the pursuit of accessibility, inclusion and equity in running/walking, cycling and swimming — the three disciplines of a triathlon.
Para Guide is a longtime partner organization of OrthoCarolina. That made them the ideal candidate for our “Partnership Pairing” series, where we match a local nonprofit with a Charlotte creative to make something unique to bring the organization’s mission to life in a unique, artistic way.
And, they didn’t let us down.
Everyone Can Be an Athlete
- Accessibility for all.
- Opportunities for all.
- Equity for all.
Those three principles drive every action undertaken by Para Guide, whose origin story began when co-founder Paul Harrold invited Shannon Houlihan to join his triathlon team in 2016. Houlihan had recently moved to the Queen City from Houston. She soon realized that there was no local organization offering Charlotte’s 9,000+ blind individuals an opportunity to train for their own triathlon.
Houlihan and Harrold decided to fill that void, founding Para Guide and partnering sighted athletes with blind athletes to train and undertake triathlons as a team.
“Often people ask if the guide is ‘pulling’ the blind athlete,” said Houlihan. “That is not what is happening. The guide’s job is simply to serve as the ‘eyes’ for the athlete. The pair will always move at the pace of the athlete.”
Success and growth have come quickly. Para Guide won the $7,500 Judge’s Award as well as the $1,000 Community Vote Award at #SEED20 in 2019. Today, they serve over 90 adaptive individuals and have provided in-home fitness equipment (stationary bicycles, treadmills, weights) for 50 adaptive athletes over the past two years.
This summer, they trained a new group of tandem bike pilots (the sighted person on the front of the tandem bike) and stokers (the blind individuals that sit on the back of the bike). That translates to 30 individuals riding on 15 tandem bikes. The participants ran the gamut.
“A young man learned to pilot his mother for the first time,” said Houlihan. “A wife learned to pilot her husband, a Navy veteran well into his 70s.”
Enter … The Poet!
Para Guide easily inspires those who see their athletes compete. But, how can we inspire them? How can we remind them how incredible their partnerships are? To do that, we turned to award-winning Charlotte poet and slam poetry champion, Jay Ward.
He was more than up to the task.
“The role of a poet in general is to unite and to disrupt and to speak for others who can’t find their voice,” said Ward. “To light the way in darkness and to translate everything that’s happening in the world and to also translate those fleeting moments that everyone experiences but no one has the words for.”
Writing and recording a spoken word piece that captures the essence of Para Guide and can be used by their athletes to prepare to perform was in line with how poets can show up in society.
“There are many different roles poets can play, and in a city like Charlotte we need them all. We need each voice,” said Ward. “Bring on the poets!”
Hear Ward’s Poem, Together … Here
Click the image below to listen to Together, a one-minute, original spoken word poem Ward wrote and recorded for the athletes of Para Guide.
Together by Jay Ward
Being on a team is about mutual trust, constant communication;
it’s a cadence, it’s music, it’s the way you move. Crossing the finish
line is a synchronized dance set to the melody of footfalls against
the trail, bicycle spokes whirring like locusts down a long road, your
hands mastering the rhythm of splash. Together you make a song.
Sight by side, elbow to elbow, tethered by things most people wouldn’t
wouldn’t notice, like the energy exchange of a high five, or the way
the sun celebrates on your skin when you step outside, the way
your heart reminds you you already won because every practice
prepared you for today.
All your training, the early morning anticipation,
every fear and every joy all culminating with this—you are ready!
All that’s left is to go out there and do it! Just walk. Just run.
Just cycle. Just swim. You do that as a team and today is another
song you sing. Another challenge you met to be that much better.
Today is another victory, and you’ll do it together!
About the Partnership Pairing Process
We asked Houlihan and Ward to share a little more about the process of working together.
Shannon, what was it like working with Jay? How do you think his gift will be received?
SHANNON HOULIHAN: When I first spoke with Jay, it really struck me that he is not only creative — a truly gifted creative person — but he also deeply had a desire to energize and motivate the athletes that we support with his gift; it was so heartfelt. I admire his generosity and desire to give something that he creates to the community that we love and support
Jay, same questions. What was it like working with Para Guide?
WARD: Working with Para Guide was awesome! Talking with Shannon was really insightful in terms of figuring out an approach and determining the things I wanted to say and didn’t want to say. I walked away with an even greater appreciation for Para Guide, for its athletes and for all of the nonprofits here in Charlotte working so hard to make a difference.
What most inspired your work?
WARD: In other projects I’ve worked on, my audience is usually the general public and my goal is to make them aware, as poetically as possible, of what a company or a nonprofit is doing and how others can help.
With a nonprofit as amazing as Para Guide that would have been easy. But when I was asked to gear this toward the athletes themselves and not the general public, I was very excited—and a little intimidated, if I’m honest. But that’s a good thing—I can’t wait to complete this project and present it!
What feelings do you hope this evokes in Para Guide athletes who hear it?
WARD: What I remember most about playing football in high school was the adrenaline rush just before we took the field, swirling thoughts of anticipation, readiness and also a little bit of doubt. I remember how the rousing speeches from our coaches channeled that energy so we could perform our best.
More recently I think of being on SlamCharlotte’s slam team and how Bluz Rogers always got us amped up before a bout, but also seemed to always say the right thing to keep us focused on the real goal — to represent ourselves and our city the best we could, and to always challenge ourselves to be better. I can only hope that this project evokes a similar feeling in the Para Guide athletes.
Shannon, now that you’ve heard the piece created through this Partnership Pairing, what do you think?
HOULIHAN: What a special tribute that not only has the potential to energize our athletes but also speaks to the unique relationship between blind athletes and their guides. I couldn’t adequately summarize or explain that relationship, but Jay’s performance of his beautiful words truly embodies the feeling of that bond.
Swim a Few More Laps with these Creatives
The Partnership Pairing series is powered by OrthoCarolina.