If you thought the Olympic feats of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Nastia Liukin were impressive, prepare to be overwhelmed by the competitors of the 2008 Paralympic Games. The quadrennial multi-sport festival for disabled athletes — held in Beijing's Olympic venues from Sept. 6-17 — is the subject of a stirring NBC documentary on Sunday, Nov. 9 at 2:30 pm/ET.
"Ability is in the eye of the beholder," Bob Costas says in his opening narration. Indeed, the emotional film includes many thrill-of-victory and agony-of-defeat moments that transcend the physical limitations of the athletes. "What happens is you begin to forget that there's any disability there," says David Michaels, NBC's coordinating producer for the Paralympics. "Then you get to see them as pure athletes, which is pretty neat."
Among those profiled are Marlon Shirley and April Holmes, both of whom lost legs in tragic accidents and became Paralympic icons as the world's fastest amputee man and woman. Shirley won his classification of the 100-meter dash at the 2000 and 2004 Paralympics, but came to Beijing having "gone through all kinds of other crazy health issues," Michaels says. "He picked up a staph infection, there was even some talk of a further amputation, above the knee, of his leg. He wasn't in the greatest shape, but he was there to defend his title."
Standing in his way was media sensation Oscar Pistorius. The double-amputee South African phenom finished second to Shirley four years ago, but has since established himself as "the fastest man on no legs" and nearly qualified for the Olympics. We won't spoil how the race unfolded, but Michaels says "I've been doing Olympics and these kinds of stories for 25 years and this was one of the most amazing bits of video that I've ever seen."
The documentary also addresses the growing number of military personnel joining the Paralympic ranks. One such athlete, former Marine Scott Winkler, was paralyzed from the chest down in Iraq in 2003. The wheelchair-bound Pittsburgh native took up the shot put as a way to redefine himself. "I can't stand tall, but I will sit proud," he says while reflecting on his fifth-place finish in Beijing. It's a poignant moment, one of many inspiring stories in the 90-minute film.
Universal Sports, NBC's Olympic-themed cable channel, showcases seven straight nights of Paralympic event coverage beginning Monday, Nov. 10 at 7 pm/ET. There will be four hours of coverage each evening, including the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies, which were as majestic as the Olympic celebrations. Click here to see if your cable company carries the network.