When Laverne Cox began to achieve a level of fame that made her a regular interview subject, a common question she had to field was whether, as a black trans woman, she saw herself as a role model. Cox rejected the label, before adding the caveat, “but I do like the term possibility model.”
This observation springs to mind when considering the nature of possibility. It’s a powerful notion, especially when it appears in sport.
Last night, Hannah Cockcroft continued her era of dominance with her 3rd Paralympic gold, winning the T34 100 metres. Yet also of significance was the performance of Kare Adenegan. She won the silver medal, and at only 15-years-old, she carries with her something else that’s precious: potential.
Often the anticipation of what could be is better than the reality of the now. The promise of the new can be an impactful stimulating agent. It’s common in many walks of life: a new relationship; a new job; or a move abroad. In sport – and in this specific case, the Paralympics – few things excite fans more than the arrival of a new talent. It’s customary for us to project our own hopes and desires onto athletes, and the less we know about them, the easier the projection becomes.
This dynamic has faint echoes with the enthusiastic reaction that accompanies childbirth. One of the ancillary reasons which make childbirth such a wonderful thing is the possibility of what this newborn could become – boundless potential made flesh: they could formulate the cure for Alzheimer’s; discover the algorithm that puts humanity on Mars; or even figure out beyond all doubt how to fold a fitted sheet.
Cockcroft is one of those “inevitable” athletes, and anyone who’s watched her knows the pattern of her races. After about 20 metres, you can change the channel, because Cockcroft’s already ended the contest. She’s the wheelchair racing equivalent of a boxer who wins all their fights in the first round.
That’s until Adenegan came along. Last year, she gave the loudest of clarion calls to her potential, giving Cockcroft her first defeat in seven years, and last night went stride for stride with her until the greater strength endurance and experience of Cockcroft caused her to pull away and cross the line first.
But an advantage all young up-and-comers have is that they operate with a margin of error, due to the likelihood of future appearances at this level. A below-par display is cushioned by the knowledge that there’s always a next time. Adenegan is playing with house money in Rio.
However, that shouldn’t frame her achievement as preordained. Ultimately, potential is an ephemeral thing; a piece of malleable clay that concretises into fully-formed success, or collapses through flimsy construction.
But Adenegan didn’t collapse, and showed she’s as mentally strong as she is athletically gifted. In her first Paralympics, with its attendant pressures, she delivered a personal best time for the T34 100 metres to go with her silver. It’s an impressive marker, as she will be going for further medals in Rio, and proves that she’s not just a name for the future, but also the present.
While we should be excited by what Adenegan could be, we should also be excited by what she already is. Earlier this year, in a lovely letter penned to the charity that funded her first racing wheelchair, Adenegan wrote that,“Sports is a great way to express our uniqueness.”
This uniqueness could have profound consequence in years to come. Adenegan was compelled to take up adaptive sports after watching the 2012 Paralympics. One wonders if future Paralympians will say that they were influenced by watching Adenegan. Not just by what she achieves in Rio, but in Tokyo in 2020, and beyond.
The Paralympics is an event largely populated by white athletes, so there’s power in Kare Adenegan (and also, Kadeena Cox) not only beginning to fulfil her personal potential, but doing so in a disabled body that demonstrates the plurality of #BlackGirlMagic.
Everybody’s good at something, although not many get the chance to show it. But with her display last night – just like Laverne Cox – Kare Adenegan is one hell of a possibility model.
 – One’s biological development is an important consideration here, as no person fully matures into their body at 15. There’s no doubt Adenegan will become more physically adept once she hits her 20’s.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.