When the postponed 2020 Paralympic Games wrap up Sunday in Tokyo, many “firsts” will have been accomplished by women — several of whom are bringing home medals to their countries for the first time.
This Paralympic Games, which started on Aug. 23 after a year-long delay for the 4,405 competitors due to the coronavirus pandemic, has already made history. For the first time since the debut of the Paralympics in 1960, Paralympians will be paid the same for their medal wins as their Olympic peers. Because the U.S. government doesn’t financially support its Olympic or Paralympic athletes, the winnings are especially dear to these athletes who often need expensive and custom gear.
Here are some of the trailblazers who have further changed the Games this year.
First Afghan to compete in taekwondo
Just a couple weeks ago, Zakia Khudadadi arrived in Kabul to depart for Tokyo. Instead, the Taliban overtook the capital and the Afghan Paralympic athletes appeared to be stranded.
“As a representative of Afghan women, I ask you to help me,” Khudadadi said in a Reuters video published on Aug. 18, while trapped in a relative’s home. “My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Please hold my hand and help me.”
Khudadadi is the second woman from the country to compete in the Paralympic Games, an opportunity that looks unlikely for female athletes in the future if the Taliban maintains its grip on power.
Taekwondo is making its Paralympic debut in Tokyo this year, and Khudadadi was the first taekwondoka of either gender to represent Afghanistan. After a week in Paris following her escape from Afghanistan, she arrived in the Paralympic Village on Saturday and competed for the first time on Wednesday, losing her first-round match.
First gold medalist for Ethiopia
The race wasn’t even close. Mengistu finished in 4:23.24, almost a full seven seconds ahead of Team USA’s Liza Corso. The race was her second international competition. Earlier this year, she won the Tunis 2021 Grand Prix.
She took up running at school, and her hero is fellow Ethiopian long-distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba, according to the Paralympics website.
First Indian woman to win Paralympic gold
Avani Lekhara became the first woman from India to win a Paralympic Games gold, after scoring 249.6 in the women’s 10-meter air rifle in sport class SH1 on Monday. It was also India’s first Paralympic medal in shooting.
“I’m so happy I could be the one to contribute it. Hopefully there’s a lot of medals more to come,” she said after making history.
Lekhara picked up the sport in 2015, three years after suffering spinal cord injuries in a car accident, leaving her with no feeling below her waist. Her father took her to the shooting range on summer vacations as a hobby.
“I feel a connection towards it. When you have to focus and the consistency — that’s what I like about shooting,” she said.
The law student’s victory came even after a disruption to her training during India’s severe covid outbreak, during which her physical therapist could not visit for her daily sessions, she said.
First openly nonbinary person to earn a medal
Lambird, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 9, played wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby before segueing into racing in 2015 after volunteering at a wheelchair track meet.
First female rower to represent Kenya in an Olympic or Paralympic Games
When Asiya Mohamed was 2, she lost both legs and several fingers after being hit by a train in Mombasa. It was the same day her father died of a stroke.
“It took a whole four years to be taught how to walk using artificial legs just like a nursery kid, and at that time I couldn’t even play with friends my age, because they kept running away from me due to my condition,” she said.
Her mother died eight years later, and Mohamed was raised by a cousin. In a country known for producing marathoners, she became the first female Kenyan to compete in rowing in the Olympic or Paralympics.
She had hoped for a medal in the PR1 class in Tokyo, but placed last. Still, it was significant that she got there at all. To get her Tokyo spot, she had to ask friends and family for funds to make the qualifying regatta in Tunis. Then at the last minute, she was almost kept out of the race because she did not have a Kenyan uniform, so she borrowed one from an able-bodied countryman.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I really needed that experience and exposure,” she said, according to the Olympics website. “However, luck was truly on my side. I gave my all, winning my category, and got the ticket to Tokyo.”
First gold medalist for Australia in track and field
In 1997, at 4, Madison de Rozario lost the use of her legs after contracting transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that causes inflammation of the spinal cord. In 2020, Mattel made a Barbie doll inspired by her. And in 2021, she became Australia’s first Paralympic gold medalist in track and field.
In her fourth Paralympic Games, the wheelchair racer from Perth nabbed the gold in the 800 meters in the T53 class on Sunday. She had three silver medals from prior games.
Last year, Mattel released a Barbie doll modeled on de Rozario, in her yellow-and green uniform and wheelchair. She called it “one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid,” according to the Guardian.
First medalists for Ecuador in the history of the Paralympics
One family, two medals. With Poleth Isamar Méndes Sánchez winning gold and Anaís Méndez cinching bronze in the shot put in the F20 class, Ecuador made a striking debut on the Paralympic medal stand for the first time. (The sisters’ last names are spelled differently because of a clerical error at the civil registry.)
Méndes Sánchez was flag bearer for Ecuador at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and is now the world record holder in her event, as well as the gold medalist. She started the sport at the age of 12, when recruited by a coach. Méndez picked up the sport when she was 15.
Both sisters have a congenital intellectual impairment.
First team Para dressage medalists for the United States
Britain has taken home gold ever since team Paralympic dressage was permanently established in 1996.
“To be able to finally after so many years get to stand on that podium as a country — it’s so fulfilling,” said Hart, a four-time Paralympian. “It’s a lifelong dream that has just come through.”
First woman to win gold in wheelchair rugby
As part of the British team that won the country’s first gold and the first woman in the mixed-gender sport to earn that medal, Kylie Grimes had twice as many reasons to celebrate on Sunday. After the historic match, she is the only woman out of the 57 ruggers to wear that medal since the sport officially debuted at the 2000 Sydney Games.
As a child, Grimes dreamed of being an Olympian and was an equestrian. Her journey took a detour in 2006, when she struck her head on the bottom of a swimming pool after diving in. She broke her neck and suffered a spinal cord injury.
Before Tokyo, only one other woman had a medal in the sport. Now the count has tripled: Kurahashi Kae played on the Japanese team that won bronze.
“Wheelchair rugby is for all of us — young girls, young boys, youth, everybody,” Grimes said. “I would love to get more women involved in the sport. The more the merrier. I’d be delighted.”
First medalist for Turkey in Paralympic swimming
When Sevilay Ozturk was 12, she was the youngest Turkish athlete in Paralympic history in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she placed eighth in the 50-meter butterfly in the S5 class. Five years later, she won bronze in the 50 backstroke S5, the first in her country to place in swimming.
Ozturk was born without arms, and she learned to write with her feet.