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Richard Hoffer
December 25, 1989
Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives
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December 25, 1989

They Never Gave Up

Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives

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But making the 1984 trials wasn't possible; only one of her arms had been restored to normal use by the time the Summer Games began. And the seizures would never allow her to cycle safely in a pack. Still, Buchan didn't let the dream go until the medals were distributed in Los Angeles. "There," she said to herself, "that's done. Now I can start something else."

In 1986, by then living on her own in San Diego, she was alerted to the possibilities in sports for the disabled. "My mind started clicking again," she says. She began cycling and, though she still suffers spasticity in her left leg and weakness in her arms, worked herself up to the highest level in the cerebral-palsy category. She now holds the world records for the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events. In 1988 at the Seoul Paralympics, because women's cycling was deleted from the schedule Buchan entered the 800- and 400-meter runs. Though she pulled a groin muscle before the 800, she won a silver medal in that event and then finished fourth in the 400.

Buchan sees herself eventually coaching other disabled athletes and perhaps running a training center for the disabled, much like the U.S. Olympic Committee's center for able-bodied athletes in Colorado Springs. But that's someday. Right now she's training for the 1992 Paralympics, in Barcelona. She tires easily, has to take strong medicines and suffers what she calls "big-time seizures." But she recently has added swimming to her regimen and intends to enter the 100-meter breaststroke in addition to cycling and track events in Barcelona. "I'm not an average person," Buchan says.

No, she isn't.

Nothing ever broke right for Sugar Ray Seales after he won the Olympic gold medal for light welterweights in 1972. You could blame it on timing. When terrorists massacred Israelis at the Olympic Village in Munich, Seales's glory was all but forgotten. It amounted to nothing, really. Seales went home to Tacoma, Wash., and was promoted as follows: "Come See Sugar Ray Seales at Taco Time."

Here is the difference between things that break right and things that don't. The next Sugar Ray—Leonard—pulled down $40,000 for his pro debut in 1977. Debut! That's the kind of money an Olympic gold medal was worth by 1976. In Seales's entire career—he was 53-7-3, most often fighting in towns like Hoquiam, Wash., Pikeville, Ky., and Billings, Mont.—he never once got as much money as Leonard did in his first fight. For his last fight, Seales earned $9,500, but the check bounced. By then he was almost blind.

That's another thing that didn't break right. An eye goes out, you get it fixed, you go back to the gym. That's what Leonard did when he suffered a detached retina. And that's what Seales did. But in Seales's case, considerable scar tissue developed. Is that why his retinas became as worn as old dollar bills, as if folded and crumpled over and over again until holes appeared in them? Leonard had one operation and returned to the ring to gather millions. Seales had seven operations, and today he sits in his trim apartment in Tacoma, his bankruptcy declaration behind him, and peers at you through his "good" right eye. The other eye, it's like somebody is holding a brick in front of it.

It was a sad thing, that enveloping darkness. Seales was still chasing Marvin Hagler in 1983. He had had his disappointments. In 1974 he was persuaded to fight Hagler in a TV studio on short notice—at times he has said he thought the bout would be an exhibition—and lost a decision that proved a turning point in both boxers' careers. Seales fought Hagler to a draw in a rematch later that year, but nobody noticed; that fight wasn't on TV. A loss to Hagler in 1979 was another blow to Seales's career, though he claims Hagler never hurt him; after Hagler knocked him down three times in the first round, the referee stopped the fight.

Anyway, 1983: "I'm 30 and on the winning trend," Seales recalls. Another rematch with Hagler seemed possible. The previous year, Seales had even showed up at a Hagler fight in Boston to challenge him. He sat in the crowd, confident, except that he saw clouds appear above the ring. No matter. "Back home again, I'm training in the gym, I'm going gangbusters," he says, "but I notice that my brother Roy—and he doesn't know anything about boxing—is connecting on me. I tell my trainer maybe he needs to put some new light bulbs in the gym." An eye specialist examined Seales and delivered the news: "This man's been legally blind for 18 months."

The operations that followed restored some vision to Seales's right eye, hardly any to his left. Gone forever was his earning power as a fighter. Sammy Davis Jr. heard of Seales's plight and gave a benefit performance for the boxer in 1984. But that didn't break right, either. The benefit lost $25,000, and Seales's medical bills of more than $100,000 remained unpaid. There was nothing for him to do but file for bankruptcy and get on with a life that would forever be conducted in the gauzy world of the nearly blind. "Nineteen years of boxing, 430 fights," he says. Nothing.

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