For half a dozen Russians, a 10-day trip to Spokane was intended primarily as a cultural exchange and fact-finding trip on parasports.
It was so much more than that for Natalia Kamolinkova, a wheelchair athlete from St. Petersburg. The Russian city has more than 6 million people – but only 20 wheelchairs for basketball players.
Her face widened Thursday afternoon as she rolled into a ParaSport Spokane facility in Spokane Valley, where dozens of wheelchairs sat in rows along with all manner of other equipment.
“I thought I was in movie, or dreaming,” said Kamolinkova, who suffered a heart attack six years ago that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
There were many more revelations for Kamolinkova and five other visitors, who arrived in the Inland Northwest on Sept. 12 with the goal of learning how Americans teach and coach sports for disabled athletes.
They came to Spokane thanks to the Open World Program. Since its launch in 1999, nearly 23,000 individuals from a wide variety of professional fields have traveled to more than 2,000 communities in all 50 states to meet and share knowledge with their professional colleagues and to learn about life in America.
The program found its way to the Inland Northwest two years ago, when six delegates from Kazakhstan came to the Inland Northwest to learn about agricultural production, marketing, distribution and growth.
By then, the region had formed a chapter of the Friendship Force Club, an organization established by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
“Needless to say, this international exchange offers some respite from the usual political-economic conflicts that inundate us each day,” said Robin Redman, an organizer of the exchange. “If only all of the world problems could be solved on the sports field with a shared meal afterward, right?”
The visitors certainly worked up an appetite. On Sunday, they were kayaking at Medical Lake, an experience Kamolinkova described as “my best day since being paralyzed.”
They also attended an opening dinner with Hoopfest executive director Matt Santangelo, who explained how the event integrated disabled players.
On Monday, it was track and field at the ParaSporttraining site at Valley Christian School. Tuesday was a double-dip: golf at Downriver and rock-climbing at Wild Walls.
That was a warm-up for Wednesday, which included ice skating in Coeur d’Alene, paddle sports at Eastern Washington University and a night in Spokane.
By Thursday, they still had energy for a night of basketball with ParaSport coach Tomie Zuchetto and director Theresa Skinner.
On Friday, the group went horseback riding and was treated to a farewell dinner with Bloomsday executive director Jon Neill.
On Saturday, the Russians will head to the airport, eager to pass on what they’ve learned. For Kamolinkova, it’s more than sports.
It’s the simple things, she said, that Americans take for granted but are utterly missing in Russia. Things like a push-button door or public restroom with sinks that have enough space underneath for a wheelchair.
“It’s not just physical,” Kamolinkova said. “This makes you feel like a real person.”
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