You don’t scare me, Lipsett…much.
On Tuesday I got the opportunity to interview Taylor Lipsett, a Paralympic gold and bronze medalist on his way to Sochi to try for the United States’ second consecutive gold medal in ice sled hockey.
I know. There must have been some kind of mistake on their end. “Wait, who is interviewing me? Who? No seriously, who?”
Regardless, there I was on the phone with a world class athlete. I tried not to make too big an ass of myself. Here’s our conversation:
Good morning, Taylor! So, let me tell you who I am. I’m a humor writer, and I’m also physically disabled. Mine is that I have no fingers on my right hand, so I have like four fingers and a half thumb. Because I’m a humor writer I wanted to start out with the good, probing questions and then end with a few ridiculous ones, is that ok? Are you on board with ridiculous?
Awesome. Okay, so let’s go ahead and dive in. So you were first introduced to the sport at age 15 and then two years later, you were on the National team and earning a silver medal at the world championships. How did you get to that level in just two years? And as a teenager?
TL: Before I was introduced to sled hockey I was doing some things that were paving the way for my success without me even knowing it. Growing up I used to ride around on a skateboard, and I would use my hands to push myself around. Once I started playing sled hockey, basically the movements are exactly the same. In sled hockey we have two sticks instead of one, we have picks on the ends of the sticks that we push through to propel ourselves, and then to turn you’re leaning side to side, which is exactly how I was turning on the skateboard. I think that helped me catch on really quick, and then it was just a matter of learning the game, working on perfecting stick handling, shooting and things like that. Definitely lucked out in that regard.
Is it unusual for someone that young to be on the team?
TL: No, it’s actually not. We’re taking a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old with us to Sochi. It’s really neat right now, we’re starting to get in our third generation of sled hockey players here in the US. When I started, the first group had started playing in the nineties and they were all in their 20′s and 30′s and 40′s, and then my generation of sled hockey players came along and started playing in our teens. Now we’re seeing players who are 15 and 16-years-old who have been playing sled hockey since they were 7 and 8-years-old. They’re ten years younger than me but they’ve been playing almost as long as I have. It’s really great to be a part of and to see them coming up. I think our average age this year going into Sochi is 21-years-old. So I think that bodes well for Team USA in the long run.
What kind of training have you been doing for the Paralympics?
TL: Our mindset this season was to peak in March. We didn’t want to be the best team in the world in November or January, we wanted to be the best team in the world on March 15th. Unfortunately, we aren’t together as a team all the time, so about 90% of the training is done at home on our own. Starting in January I started waking up at 4:30 every day, I would either go to crossfit or be on the ice in the morning, and then I would do the opposite at night about three days a week. So I was doing two-a-days, three days a week and then either one or the other on the other days. We were also fortunate enough to have 11 players move to Colorado Springs to the Olympic training center in mid-January, so they’ve been training there for the past month or so.
What would you say are some common misconceptions about brittle bone disease?
TL: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a misconception because it is true, but I don’t just break bones super easily. Some people joke around, saying “Don’t touch him, he’s going to break an arm” and things like that. They know it’s not true, but some of the guys on the team give me a hard time and whatnot, that’s just how we are. But there’s varying degrees of osteogenesis imperfecta, I have the most mild form of it. There are some individuals who can break bones just from sneezing or coughing too hard, children whose legs break when their parents try to change their diaper, so it can be very bad. Luckily for me I have the mildest form, I don’t break bones if you give me a hug. I keep reminding my wife about that one.
So talking about your family a little bit, that P&G video about you and your mom makes me weep hot salty tears every time I watch it. What has she told you about how was she able to find the strength to encourage you to participate in sports when people around her must have been telling her she was putting your safety at risk?
TL: That’s been one of the coolest things for me in the whole P&G and Bounty “Raising an Olympian” thing, that I was able to hear some of her stories that I had never heard before because she was always trying to be strong and positive for me. I never got to hear her talk about being worried about me and not wanting me to go out on my skateboard or being hesitant to let me play sled hockey. She really had to dig deep and bite her tongue and let me go after my goals and dreams. I’m sure it wasn’t easy after 90 or 100 broken bones to push me out on the ice knowing that there was a chance I would come back with something broken. I can’t imagine how difficult that was. It really took some courage and strength on her part because she was there growing up when I was in the hospital for every surgery and broken bones, helping me get better. She’s definitely a very strong and courageous woman and she has definitely helped me reach my goals.
There’s a lot out there about your mom and all the amazing things she has done supporting you, but I would imagine that your wife has to make a lot of sacrifices in order for you to get to Sochi because it’s such an all-encompassing endeavor. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
TL: Without a doubt. Being a part of an Olympian or Paralympian’s life, there are sacrifices that everybody has to make in order for these dreams to come true. She makes countless sacrifices as far as time, and us spending time together. I travel at least once or twice a month, and when I’m home I’m getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go train and then I go to work, and then I get off work and I go train again, then I get home and we eat, and I go to bed by 8:30 or 9:00 so I can get up at 4:30 the next day. When you’re trying to defend a gold medal that aren’t any days off. We haven’t taken a real vacation ever, I don’t think. I tell her on a daily basis that I owe her a honeymoon, and we haven’t started a family or anything like that either because I travel too much and it’s just not fair to leave her at home to do it on her own so we’ve delayed that. There’s definitely a lot of sacrifices not just from the athlete’s standpoint but also from everyone around them.
You have a partnership with Bounty, the king of all paper towels. Tell me about the “Bring It” campaign.
TL: The “Bring It” campaign is about finding moms out there who bring it day in and day out no matter how messy the situation is, and relying on Bounty to help clean up all the messes. I can tell you I made plenty of those growing up, playing floor hockey in the house and things like that. It’s really neat to get to partner with a brand that is focusing on the moms. It’s cool to be a Paralympic athlete and to share my story, but it’s really about the strong moms behind us. To be able to partner with a strong brand like Bounty and reach out to all those “bring it” moms has been fun this season.
As a mother who is also disabled I really appreciate the work you’ve been doing with Classroom Champions. That is a fantastic program and I’m glad I know about it now. What advice would you give or what message do you want to get out about children who are disabled who want to participate in athletics?
TL: Just to never hold them back. My mom definitely could have held me back given the fact that I had broken so many bones, and I might never have been able to accomplish the things in sled hockey that I have. Encourage your kid to be active, to try out tons of different activities and sports out there because there are a lot of great disabled sports that are a lot of fun. Not everyone is going to be a Paralympic champion, but everyone can be active and live a healthy lifestyle. Especially for someone who is in a wheelchair like myself, being active is really important to stay healthy. So I encourage kids to go out there and have fun, and pursue their goals, and with a good support system and some passion amazing things can be achieved.
Sometimes I have to go to the downstairs fridge to get a diet soda, so I know what you’re talking about.
So, just in general about disabled athletes, you’ve been to a few Paralympics, when you talk to players on other teams from other countries, do they tell you anything about what their experiences have been as disabled athletes in other countries as opposed to the United States?
TL: With the language barrier sometimes it’s tough. One time I asked a guy on the Japan team how he became disabled because he’s a really high amputee, and he told me that he ran too much and his leg fell off.
TL: I don’t think that’s the truth, and I still don’t know how he became disabled. But the sled hockey community is really small and we’ve gotten to know some of the people on other teams, and it is interesting to hear about the hospital systems and things like that in other countries compared to the us. There’s definitely differences, but the bottom line is that we’re all the same in that we’ve all taken life by the horns and made the most of it and gone after our dreams and luckily been able to accomplish some really cool things.
So I have a question that involves Oscar Pistorious, but nothing about murder: how do you feel about the general idea of Paralympic athletes trying to qualify for the Olympics? Do you see that as a positive, because it shows that an athlete is an athlete, or do you see it as a negative because it implies that the Paralympics are not as competitive?
TL: No, I think it’s amazing. if you’re good enough to qualify for the Olympics as a disabled athlete I would say go for it. A lot of people have asked me why there aren’t any disabled US track athletes that are qualifying for the Olympic team, and the bottom line is that the US track athletes are just that much better than a lot of the other countries. Our Paralympians aren’t quite to that level yet, whereas in other countries they might be. It’s not a dig on our US Paralympians, it’s just a matter of what country you’re from and the level of competitiveness in those countries. I think him qualifying for the Olympics in London did amazing things for the Paralympic movement. it really brought it to the forefront and shared some amazing stories with a lot of people who might not have ever looked at people with disabilities in that way. He really showed the world that people with disabilities can accomplish amazing things, and he wasn’t even the only Paralympian that was competing at the London Olympics. The fact that there were multiple Paralympians competing and getting the exposure for the Paralympics opened people’s eyes. I think London in general really opened people’s eyes to the Paralympics because the media exposure since has been leaps and bounds above what it was beforehand, especially here in the US.
You guys dominated in the 2010 Paralympics, shutting out every single team you played, which is amazing. Do you think you guys can repeat that kind of performance this time around? Are you hoping to do that?
TL: I wouldn’t say that we’re hoping to go out and shut out every opponent. I think our goal is to just go out and play our game every game and get better every game. As long as we focus on us as a team and playing our game and not worry about who we’re playing, you never know what can happen. I think we’re just going to focus on not overlooking anybody and taking any team for granted and just focusing on us. And if it happens it happens, but I’ll still take a gold medal even if we do give up a goal or two.
And after you win, can you please say in your first post-game interview that you are the best forward in the game, and when they try you with a sorry team like the Czech Republic, that’s the result they’re gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about Lipsett. Could you do that?
TL: I’ll see if I can put on my best Sherman.
Fantastic. Okay, so I’ve got a couple of ridiculous questions to close it out. Every Olympics has its horrible mascots. And this year, on the mascot homepage, because there is one, they have all the Olympic mascots and all the Paralympic mascots all living in a house together, like on America’s Next Top Model. The Olympic mascots are the bear, the hare, and the leopard. The Paralympic mascots are Snowflake and Ray of Light, who, conveniently, live on the ground floor for better handicapped access. How disappointed are you in the choice of Paralympic mascots, and do you have suggestions for better ones?
TL: I haven’t really thought about the mascots very much leading up to Sochi…
TL: I think they’re always interesting. I think they try to make them as interesting as possible, they’re never just some typical mascot. I honestly haven’t seen the mascot homepage yet.
Well, you should look it up.
TL: Yeah, I’ll have to check that out.
There was a lot of talk before the Olympics, I’m sure you saw, about how unprepared Sochi was for the media – manholes without covers, hotel rooms without roofs, and so on. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a Russian festival of stairs, and 10 being a disabled utopia, how prepared do you think Sochi is going to be for the Paralympics?
TL: I think it’ll be a good 8 or 9. I think they’ve put a lot of time and effort into preparing the city and the venues. What a lot of people don’t realize is that they don’t really go through and make sure all that stuff is handicapped accessible until after the Olympics. That’s something that’s typical. That’s why there’s a two week break in between so they can go in there, clean everything up, make sure everything is accessible, fix anything that’s not, and then we roll in and everything is smooth. A lot of it is just the the negative attention that the media likes to pick up, the one off stories here and there. I’ve touched base with a lot of people who were at the Olympics and in the Olympic village and some of the other hotels around Sochi and from what I’ve heard everything has been amazing over there. There’s not an abundant amount of strange hotel rooms that you heard about and yellow water everywhere.
It was dangerous face water, Taylor.
TL: I’ll make sure and use bottled water.
You’ve heard, I’m sure, about the famous Sochi double toilets. If you had to share a double toilet with any one person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
TL: Any person…hold on. Any person living or dead…
It’s a tough one.
TL: And I’m trying to keep it appropriate. Uh…no idea.
I stumped you with this one. Stumped you with the double toilet question.
TL: It is a good one. I’ll keep thinking.
Ok. Keep thinking. I just have one more question. On neutral ground, who would win in a fight between a silver back gorilla and a grizzly bear?
TL: Definitely a gorilla.
TL: And I have an answer to the other question. I’m going Abe Lincoln just because he has an awesome beard and I’m trying to get there.
Nice. I would not have gone there.
TL: It’s the beard.
And then I wished him luck on the 18th, which, as I discovered after hanging up, is the day after the Paralympics end and not the day of his first game. And he just said thank you, because he is a good man.
You can watch the P&G “Raising an Olympian” video, featuring Taylor and his mom HERE.
And to watch Ice Warriors, the PBS documentary about the USA sled hockey team that premiered this week, you can go here: Ice Warriors.