Film series featuring disabled athletes strives to highlight raw talent

While the salaries and lifestyles of big-name athletes are often fodder for front-page news, there is a subset of pros who, despite training just as hard, often go unnoticed and, in some cases, are unpaid. Two women seeking to address this disparity have created a series of short documentaries titled “She’s Got Grit,” featuring female athletes with disabilities.

“As a female producer I’ve been to many conferences, including ones that address the lack of realistic and human role models in the media,” Dara Padwo-Audick, series producer and creator, told “I was really looking to bring some more content to fill in that gap.”

Padwo-Audick, who also spent time working with the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, met Tricia Downing, a lifelong competitive athlete who became paralyzed from the neck down in 2000 after she was hit by a car while training on her bicycle. Downing immediately returned to the competitive arena and became immersed in the world of Paralympics and elite competitions as a way to physically and mentally heal.

“A lot of people will look at me and tell me that I’m an inspiration simply because I get up in the morning and go do what I do, not realizing that I also have athletic talent that I’m tapping into,” Downing, who’s the host of “She’s Got Grit,” told Downing signed on to the film project because she wants athletes like herself to be recognized for their raw talent rather than their disability, and she believes the series is a way for people to recognize that.

“This is a three- or four-prong opportunity to showcase these athletes, give them some credit, plant the seed in the minds of younger kids with disabilities, and to show that it’s not just about the disability— it’s about the athlete,” she said.

Each episode of the series will feature a different aspect of being an athlete with a disability. The topics will range from individual athlete profiles to training regimens and nutrition, as well as developments in adaptive technology. The first two episodes featured on the project’s IndieGoGo page feature Downing as well as Nicole DeBoom, Ironman champion and founder of Skirt Sports, a women's running apparel company, explaining what it means for a woman to have “grit,” and how sports can help a person find and test their true strength.

“Sports is one of those things that raises confidence and self-esteem,” Downing, who co-hosts part of the film series, said. “If you talk to a lot of the athletes that we’re profiling, and just athletes with a disability, sports really gives them something that enhances their lives and gives them something to live for.”

"General society doesn’t know about disabled sports,” Downing explained in the series trailer. “They don’t know about adaptive equipment. They don’t know about the high level of competition.”

In addition to lack of awareness, female disabled athletes are also subject to the same gender-based pay inequality prevalent among all athletes.

“There’s a lot of talk right now in the world of sports because there’s only half as many women invited to triathlons, and their prize money is usually half or less— there’s a big inequity between men and women in sports,” Downing said. “Now take it a step further, and there’s athletes with disabilities who may never see a dime, but they are still trying to compete at that level. You can’t make a living being an athlete with a disability right now— and yet you have to put in the same amount of time.”

Over the summer, Padwo-Audick and Downing, who are located on opposite coasts, drove to Colorado to film for five days and create the first two episodes featured on their IndieGoGo page. Through Downing’s connections they were quickly able to form a long list of athletes who fit the “She’s Got Grit” criteria, but ultimately selected two with interesting stories who were easily accessible due to time constraints. Downing points out, however, that once they are fully funded they have a list of qualified athletes to last them for years.

Both women said the series is about putting these athletes on a stage where they can be taken seriously and recognized as more than just a feel-good or uplifting story.

“By the time people get to the Paralympics they’ve lost interest— they don’t understand there’s Paralympians who are just as well trained as Olympians,” Padwo-Audick said. “They don’t realize that athletes give up the rest of their lives to train in one particular sport... And I think that is such a disservice to the people who have disabilities— to the parents who are raising children with disabilities and don’t know what the possibilities are for their child.”