Paralympic Stars—and Everyday Heroes

Tufts’ Jessica Harney classifies athletes with disabilities for international competition, and helps bring adaptive sports to all

The Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, starting March 9, bring to the world stage extraordinary athletes competing in alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, sled hockey, snowboarding, wheelchair curling, and biathlon.

Jessica Harney, a senior lecturer in the Department of Occupational Therapy, knows what it takes for athletes with physical disabilities to reach such an elite level of competition. As an international alpine skiing medical classifier for the International Paralympic Committee and head of alpine skiing and snowboarding medical classification for U.S. Paralympics, she helps create a level playing field for athletes with different types of disability, a crucial component of fair competition.

She is also president of the New England Disabled Sports, an organization dedicated to promoting athletic and recreational opportunities for disabled people of all ages, based  at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, New Hampshire.

Harney recently spoke with Tufts Now about her work with disabled athletes, the growth of interest in the Paralympics, and how she finds inspiration in the rise of adaptive sports.

Tufts Now: You’ve classified a number of Paralympic Winter Games contenders. Can you explain what that involves?

Jessica Harney:

Jessica Harney Jessica Harney
Anyone who reaches the level of elite competition is designated by “class” or scope of disability, which allows athletes of different physical dysfunctions to compete on a level playing field. Each class is assigned a time factor. To classify, I physically assess athletes based on their physical impairment.

I am trained to test, among other things, their range of motion and coordination and balance. The more physically disabled someone is, the higher the time factor to their finish time. A time factor is a like a golf handicap. What is great about classification is that everybody, globally, is evaluated by the same standards. Right now, with the growth of interest in adaptive sports, we are rewriting all classification rules to make them even more evidence-based practice.

There has been a 24 percent increase in the number of athletes competing in the Paralympics Winter Games this year, compared to four years ago in Sochi—670 athletes from eighty countries. NBC says it’s providing “unprecedented” news coverage and commentary—more than 250 hours. What accounts for that big change?

I think the athletes have really done it themselves by being powerful and amazing. They are so confident in who they are and what they do, and their push to show the world— “hey, look at what we can do”—has been eye opening for U.S. media. It’s a credit to athletes like Amy Purdy, the snowboard racing bronze medalist from the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games. She’s a bilateral, below knee amputee who has competed on Dancing with the Stars and The Amazing Race. She helped broaden the vision for paralympic sports in general; she’s helped get the message out that “we’re not any different,” and that’s really cool.

Are there any specific athletes you will be rooting for?

They’re all fascinating, but it will be great to see performances by athletes from New England four-time paralympian and Alpine skier Tyler Walker, and 2014 slalom sitting bronze medalist Laurie Stephens. They’re the best in the world, and inspiring in their determination to be the best.  And there’s also first-time Paralympian Spencer Wood, from the Killington Mountain School.

There are also a lot of young athletes out there who I have known since they were really young. To see them rise to this level is inspiring—and anyone who has made it to the U.S. ski and snowboard team is exciting.

Do you think that the two distinct Olympic games might be brought together at some point in the future?

I think that it would be great to have one Olympics versus two. Or maybe we could get a day where we get to parity with skiing and snowboarding—those are the two sports I can speak for. Could all the athletes just be in one Olympics or could Paralympics compete as a category within the Olympic Winter Games? I think that would be tremendous—let’s all get together under one schedule and one roof.

You’ve been involved with New England Disabled Sports (NEDS) for some twenty-five years—and obviously give a lot of your time and talent to the athletes. What motivates you?

Thirty years ago, by a moment of chance, my whole family got involved in adaptive skiing, when my younger sister, who has a cognitive disability, became a student. Skiing became the most important activity in our family, because we could now do it together. My parents became volunteers, my dad becoming a legend (“Dr. Bob”) in the national and international adaptive sports arena. I became a volunteer at age fifteen and have never looked back.

Never did I think I would become president of the board at NEDS, but it is my passion to see this program continue to succeed, deliver its mission and maintain long-term sustainability. I am motivated everyday by the smiles of athletes and families who benefit from our program, and by the dedication and compassion, of our staff and volunteers.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at

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