HELENA — Starting Aug. 24, more than 4,000 athletes will be gathering in Tokyo to compete in the Paralympic Games. They’re following a path blazed by many athletes with disabilities who came before them – including a pair of longtime Helena residents.
In boxes and at the back of closets, Tim and Judy Harris have accumulated mountains of memorabilia – photos, flag patches and dozens of medals.
“It’s almost bordering on obscene, how many are here,” Tim Harris joked.
Each item points back to a history of distinguished sporting achievement. During the 1960s, the Harrises were among a group of pioneering wheelchair athletes who competed in the early days of what would eventually be known as the Paralympics.
“They were wonderful memories,” said Judy Harris.
Organized sports for people with disabilities really began to develop in the 1940s, initially as a way to help World War II veterans with their rehabilitation. In 1948, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist working in England, founded the Stoke Mandeville Games. Over the next decade, they grew into an international competition for athletes in wheelchairs.
The Stoke Mandeville Games were held annually in Britain. Every four years, though – in Olympic years, starting in 1960 – they would be brought to other countries. Those international editions are now recognized as the first Paralympics.
The Harrises earned top finishes in U.S. and Pan-American competitions and at the Stoke Mandeville Games, and they each brought home medals from one Paralympic Games.
Tim Harris had polio when he was 18 months old. Growing up, he walked using crutches and braces, before switching to a wheelchair as a student at the University of Illinois. The university was known as a leading institution for serving people with disabilities, both in academics and in athletics. It was there in 1961 that he began getting involved in organized wheelchair sports, taking up football, basketball, swimming and track and field.
In those days, wheelchair athletes weren’t highly specialized. Each athlete chosen for the United States team would be asked to participate in multiple different events at national and international competitions.
“I was a pretty busy guy, I was running from one event to another,” he said. “I even tried ping pong once. That was a disaster and I quit that quite quickly.”
Tim soon became a highly successful athlete, and he was selected to compete in the second Paralympics in 1964 – held in Tokyo, the location of this year’s Games. He remembers things like visiting the city’s famous Ginza shopping district and taking part in the parade at the opening ceremony.
“It was pretty exciting to be in such a large celebration at the beginning and the end – things that I had not experienced before,” he said. “It was terrific.”
He performed well in the competitions, too. The International Paralympic Committee credits him with 10 medals, including two golds – in events ranging from wheelchair racing to shot put, javelin and discus to swimming.
In 1967, Tim Harris met another competitor, Judy Webb, who also attended the University of Illinois. She had developed neuromyelitis at 15 and had only taken up wheelchair athletics earlier that year, when she and a friend were looking for something fun to do at the university’s rehabilitation center.
“There were some bows down there, and we picked them up and were fiddling around with them,” she said. “My coach came in, and he said, ‘Put the bow down.’ And so I thought, ‘Well, that was the end of that,’ but it wasn’t – it was just the beginning.”
She took to the sport of archery, and was qualifying for international competitions within months. In 1968, Tim was taking a break from sports to keep working on his education, but Judy was selected for the U.S. team for the third Paralympics.
Mexico, the host of the 1968 Olympics, wasn’t able to organize the Paralympics, so the games were instead held in Tel Aviv, Israel. Judy said it was an eye-opening experience to visit the country immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War.
The archery competitions lasted for three days. Judy secured a silver and a bronze – an impressive finish, since she was competing against people who’d had years of international success.
“That was a real joy to me, to do as well as I did there on a much larger competitive field,” she said.
Judy’s top-level athletic career only lasted a little over a year. Tim returned to competition for several years in the early 70s.
In 1970, he was named to the National Wheelchair Athletic Association Hall of Fame for his years of accomplishments. But by 1972, the two were on a different path. They had gotten married and moved to Montana, where they went on to raise four children.
“Our life really took on a very different track there,” said Judy.
Tim said getting involved in sports was a way to build character, and it exposed him to people from different backgrounds and cultures.
“When we are involved in that kind of competition, there’s not just fierce competition back and forth, but the building of relationship,” he said.
Judy said the wheelchair athletes had to overcome even more, because there wasn’t the same support for accessibility measures in those days. They were competing two decades before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Inaccessibility was a given; everything was inaccessible,” she said. “When we traveled, it wasn’t unusual for them to have to carry us on and off buses and up and down stairs and take doors off hinges so that we could get into bathrooms.”
Today, the Harrises still follow the Paralympic Games. The event has changed a lot since their time participating. After originally being just for people in wheelchairs, the Paralympics have expanded to include athletes with a much wider variety of disabilities. Only about 400 athletes took part in the 1964 Games and 750 in 1968, compared with thousands today. Paralympic athletes have also become far more visible, appearing in ceremonies and commercials during the Olympics.
The Paralympics themselves receive much more media coverage, with several hours of coverage set to appear on NBC. Tim encourages people who watch the Games to think about the athletes’ efforts and the success they’re achieving.
“They should think about, number one, the athletic ability – which in turn should communicate to people that folks with disabilities are as able as anyone else,” he said.
The Harrises said, at the time, they hadn’t thought of themselves as pioneers, but now they’re proud to have helped pave the way for today’s athletes with disabilities.
“For me, my takeaway was, you can do anything,” Judy said.
The Paralympic Games will begin with the Opening Ceremony on Tuesday, Aug. 24. They will continue through Sept. 5.