The Athletes From Netflix’s Rising Phoenix Refuse To Let 2020 Slow Them Down

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Tatyana McFadden training for a race.
The new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix began as polite conversation at the Rio Paralympics.
After winning one of her six medals at the 2016 games, Russian-American track and field star Tatyana McFadden started talking with Greg Nugent, the Director of Brand, Marketing and Culture for the London Olympics and Paralympics. The topic? The Paralympics — a portmanteau combining "para" (meaning alongside) with Olympics — which has origins that trace back to Nazi Germany and a Jewish doctor named Ludwig Guttmann.
She then shared her own journey to the games, which begin at a Russian orphanage, where she was too poor to afford a wheelchair. Born with spina bifida (a congenital disorder in which the spinal cord fails to develop properly) McFadden, who is paralyzed from the waist down, walked on her hands for the first nine years of her life. She believes the arm strength she built then helped her become the 17-time medal-winning wheelchair racer she is now. "I explain wheelchair racing as 'putting on a 20 pound vest to go running,'" she tells Refinery29 over the phone.
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By the end of her chat with Nugent, she had convinced him there was a movie just waiting to be made about the Paralympics, and that she needed to be a part of it. "I was like, 'I don’t know who’s going to do it. I don’t know who’s going to be part of it, but, if it comes out, I would be really happy to promote it," she says. 
Four years later, McFadden is a woman of her word, happily promoting the documentary that resulted from that conversation. The film takes a closer look at the history of the Paralympics, focusing on its recent highs and lows. It also features her and eight other athletes sharing their sometimes harrowing journeys to Paralympic glory: Italian wheelchair fencer Beatrice "Bebe" Vio, French sprinter and long-jumper Jean-Baptiste Alaize, English sprinter Jonnie Peacock, American archer Matt Stutzman, South African sprinter and long jumper Ntando Mahlangu, Chinese powerlifter Cui Zhe, Australian wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt, and Australian swimmer Ellie Cole.
Beatrice "Bebe" Vio
Cui Zhe
"All Paralympic athletes have gone through something in their life to put them in the moment of sport," Stutzman says in a phone call with Refinery29. "It’s not like we woke up one day and this was our dream or goal and we started to do it. Something had to happen."
For Alaize, that something was losing his leg and his mom in the Burundi Civil War. For Vio, it was relearning to fence with a prosthetic after severe meningitis took both her arms and legs. For Stutzman, it was convincing the world that a man born with no arms could become a champion archer — something that had never been seen before. (Now, one of the best in the world, he holds the record for the longest accurate shot by any archer.)
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"The film does a very good job of opening your eyes," says Stutzman, known as the "Armless Archer" who uses his feet to control the bow. "Whether you have a disability or not, you can’t help but think of life a little differently after watching it."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Matt Stutzman
As a first-time producer, McFadden also wanted to change perceptions of the disability community behind-the-scenes of Rising Phoenix, too. She used her position to advocate for members of the disability community to be part of the film's crew. "If we’re going to be talking about disability on-screen, trying to push the movement, promote equality," she says, "we’ve got to really implement it."
Her request was eye-opening for Rising Phoenix's co-directors, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, who "didn’t know what people with disabilities have to go through to find accessible buildings for shoots." Finding accessible buildings or transportation that allow crew members with disabilities to do their jobs can become a hiring deterrent. She hopes the film's hiring practices "helps the film industry say, 'Hey, you can hire people with disabilities.'"
McFadden has always been a fighter. It started in high school when she fought for disabled athletes like her and her younger sister, who, is also a Paralympian, to be able to participate in school sports — and won. It continued when she pushed Team USA to feature more Paralympians on its social media. "You have no idea how many times where I was like, Okay, you keep posting an Olympic athlete. Let’s make sure we post a Paralympic athlete, too," she says. Now, they do.
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But the biggest win for Paralympians has been fair pay. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, which were rescheduled for next summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marks the first time Paralympians will be paid equal to their Olympic counterparts for medal wins. "The Paralympics is our job," she says and a decision like this shows that there is no difference between a Paralympian or an able-bodied Olympian. "Both train just as hard to make the team," she says, and deserve just as much respect.
Training during a pandemic is not so easy, but McFadden has made do. "Adaptability has always been a part of my life," she says. So using laundry detergent for weights or using the road outside her Florida home as a track doesn't bother her. She's not the only Rising Phoenix athlete who has adapted her workout for the next games. Every athlete featured in the film is set to compete in 2021 including Stutzman, who, after a disappointing loss in Rio due to an equipment malfunction, has spent the last four years getting into shape both physically and mentally.
Last year, he was able to visit Tokyo and see the course where he will be competing. Now he spends each day visualizing "the background, the air and the smell and the wind," he says, so it'll be a little more familiar when he gets there. "It’ll be like I’m home."
He has also been visualizing a world in which people will see beyond his disability. On a recent trip to the store, a man asked him what happened to his arms and when he told him he was born that way, the man said, "I'm sorry. That sucks."
"Life doesn’t suck because I have no arms," Stutzman says. "You can have no arms and still have an amazing life. I’m hoping that this film opens people’s eyes even wider to that fact."

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