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28 years later, U.S. Paralympians fulfill a dream in London

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
August 30, 2012 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
U.S. Paralympic table tennis players Tara Profitt, left, and Pam Fontaine.
U.S. Paralympic table tennis players Tara Profitt, left, and Pam Fontaine.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pam Fontaine and Tara Profitt are playing table tennis at the London Paralympics
  • They first competed in the Games in 1984 and are delighted to make Team USA again
  • Both embraced wheelchair sport after they were paralyzed as teenagers in accidents
  • They lost touch for more than two decades before being reunited through table tennis

London (CNN) -- For table tennis players Pam Fontaine and Tara Profitt, competing at the London 2012 Paralympics marks the climax of a remarkable journey.

"It's really kind of awesome," Fontaine told CNN. "It's kind of surreal, the chances of it happening -- I thought we probably would've done a better job with winning the lottery than for us both to be able to do it again, 20-something years later."

The U.S. pair first took part in 1984 at Stoke Mandeville, outside London, but then lost touch with each other.

They retired from the game to concentrate on other aspects of life -- in Fontaine's case, on her first love, wheelchair basketball.

But after each separately decided to take up table tennis again just a few years ago, they were reunited by chance in 2008.

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Tito Sena of Brazil celebrates winning the men's T46 marathon on Sunday, September 9, the final day of the London 2012 Paralympics. Tito Sena of Brazil celebrates winning the men's T46 marathon on Sunday, September 9, the final day of the London 2012 Paralympics.
Paralympics 2012: The best photos
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Paralympian Margaret Maughan lights the Paralympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics on Wednesday, August 29. Paralympian Margaret Maughan lights the Paralympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics on Wednesday, August 29.
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Elliot Mujaji was a member of Zimbabwe's national athletics team and qualified to compete at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, when he suffered severe burns in an electrical accident. His right arm was amputated, and he remained in a coma for two months. He came back to athletics, and won the first ever Paralympic gold for his country. Elliot Mujaji was a member of Zimbabwe's national athletics team and qualified to compete at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, when he suffered severe burns in an electrical accident. His right arm was amputated, and he remained in a coma for two months. He came back to athletics, and won the first ever Paralympic gold for his country.
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In the course of catching up they conjured up a dream: to play together at the London Paralympics, 28 years after they first traveled to the United Kingdom as naive 19-year-olds to represent their country.

The idea had an added piquancy because it was Fontaine who had first introduced Profitt to table tennis -- also known as ping pong -- at the Ohio college where they met in 1983.

But could they pull it off?

It wasn't going to be easy to make the grade for selection nearly three decades later. Aspects of the game had changed, rules had evolved -- and their rivals for coveted spots on the Team USA Paralympic squad could be of any age.

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Undaunted, they set about getting themselves back up to speed through dedicated training; Fontaine in the Dallas area and Profitt in her home state of Connecticut, aided by coach Roman Tinyszin.

They traveled the globe last year to gain world ranking points in International Table Tennis Federation tournaments, taking in everywhere from Venezuela to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Slovenia and the Netherlands.

Fontaine's place in the Team USA squad was confirmed in January this year. Then came an anxious wait to see if Profitt had made it into the last spot in her disability class.

Finally the news they had both been praying for came through in March -- she was in.

Profitt, 47, was overjoyed by the news. "It means a lot to me," she said. "The older you get, the more you appreciate the things in life. "

As 19-year-olds, Profitt and Fontaine played singles at the 1984 Games rather than doubles, partly because they fall into different classification bands. The complex Paralympic system is intended to make sure athletes compete against others with the same level of impairment.

Paralympian Paul left his Wall Street job to take over Sail to Prevail - an organization which teaches disabled children to sail. From eight children a year, the charity, based in Newport, Rhode Island, now helps around 1,000 youngsters annually. Paralympian Paul left his Wall Street job to take over Sail to Prevail - an organization which teaches disabled children to sail. From eight children a year, the charity, based in Newport, Rhode Island, now helps around 1,000 youngsters annually.
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But this time around they will be competing both individually and in the team event.

Fontaine is aware of how much things have changed for Paralympic athletes over the years.

"Back in those days, you had to pay your own way. If you couldn't afford it, you couldn't go, so you had to fundraise," she recalled. "The uniforms were so ugly nobody wanted them."

Despite more than two decades out of touch, the friends still have many things in common.

Fontaine has two sons, one in the military and the other starting college, while Profitt has one; all three boys are very close in age.

Profitt is accompanied on the trip to London by her husband, Matt -- who was introduced to her by Fontaine when they were all students at Wright State University, in Dayton. They will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in London.

Both women were also successful able-bodied athletes before each suffered a devastating accident while a teenager.

Before meeting Fontaine in college, Profitt thought she would never practice sport again after a diving accident left her paralyzed from the chest down in 1979. She still appreciates what Fontaine did in introducing her to life as a disabled athlete.

Fontaine had played high school basketball before she was paralyzed in an automobile accident at age 16. The impact, in the days before seat belt laws came into force, sent her flying from the passenger seat through the windscreen. She broke her back, among other injuries, but a month after leaving the hospital she was at her first wheelchair basketball practice.

"I didn't have that period of 'Woe is me,'" Fontaine said. "I was right back in it."

Just over a year later, in 1982, she made her first trip overseas to play table tennis.

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But after competing at the 1984 Paralympics, Fontaine retired from the sport to focus on her beloved hoops instead, eventually retiring as an international basketball player in 2002.

Five years later, Fontaine took up table tennis again. She tried for the Beijing squad in 2008 but just missed out on a place. "I knew I was close to the level, so I said, 'OK -- there's another four years. If I work really hard, try hard, stay on track, maybe I can make the next one.'"

When a fellow table tennis player then put her in touch with Profitt, who had picked up the game again in 2008, their shared dream was born.

Since then, they have spoken almost every day, said Fontaine. The fact they are returning to the United Kingdom, where they played in their first Paralympics, makes its realization all the more special.

"It's back where we started -- it's kind of like I went through a full circle," said Fontaine. "We worked really, really had to get where we are and it's been a fun journey for the most part."

Both are down-to-earth about their achievements, despite their inspirational history.

Profitt runs two senior table tennis programs, while Fontaine's work as an adjunct professor teaching kinesiology, the study of body movement, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, means she can also share her love of sport.

"I've never really thought of myself as an inspiration -- I just feel that I am blessed to be an athlete. I've been an athlete my entire life," Fontaine said. "If I can help someone along the way, change someone's attitude about people with disabilities, help people to learn something, then that's a good day."

The chance to represent the United States once again at the Paralympics is a "true honor," she said.

"That is one of the greatest honors you can have as an athlete, to represent your country, and your community, and yourself and your family."

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