UTUADO, PUERTO RICO — The afternoon sun paints shadows on the soft red lanes of the running track, where children, teenagers and adults carve out space to practice. Their laughter and camaraderie are evidence of their rapport. The heterogeneous group, with members between 6 and 35 years of age, is united by their differences. A shrill whistle announces the start of the training session, and a flurry of action commences. Emely Colón leads the exercises. She smiles as she takes in the ensemble of people before her. They are 26 strong. Some have come looking to train in track and field, while others have come for recreation. Most have intellectual or physical disabilities and were inspired by figures such as Yaimillie Díaz and Jeriel López, exceptional, high-performance Para athletes from Utuado who compete at the international level. “No one has limits here. Whatever they endeavor to do, we’ll help them,” Colón says.
Athletes with disabilities in Puerto Rico are forging paths in environments where opportunities for development and equitable competition do not always exist. Colón and Milauri Vélez, both with children who are Para athletes, have united to empower children and young people with physical and intellectual disabilities to practice sports as a tool for improvement and growth. Today, they create competitive spaces in which the athletes can shine, whether on the track or the table tennis courts. But everything started within the close circles of their families.
“I’ve been a volleyball trainer for 15 years. Softball, too,” says Colón, a physical education teacher for 23 years.
Díaz, her 19-year-old daughter, was 3 when an accident at home led to a partial amputation of her right leg. The experience inspired Colón to train Para athletes who have physical and intellectual disabilities. She took courses on nutrition and Paralympism, and obtained her license to be a track and field trainer from the Sports and Recreation Department of Puerto Rico, the government agency tasked with promoting recreation and sports. “I fell in love with the Paralympic movement,” Colón says.
As a trainer, she has traveled around the world to various Parapan American and Grand Prix games, international competitions approved by World Para Athletics. She also plays a leadership role among trainers within the Federación de Para-Atletismo de Puerto Rico, one of the eight federations constituting the National Paralympic Committee of Puerto Rico, the governing body for high-performance Paralympic sports.
Colón balances her personal life with daily sports training at Pista Atlética Wilfreddie Quintana Heredia. For two years, the Club de Atletismo Adaptado has served as an inclusive space for athletes practicing adapted and high-performance physical education. “The group formed based on the individual needs of each athlete. When parents learned about this project, they made the commitment to my Club de Atletismo Adaptado,” Colón says.
Roberto Montalvo, 35, and Arianna Sophia Soto, 16, are part of the adapted sports group and say they have found a family there. “At one point, I couldn’t come [to the track], and she [Colón] came to train me near my house,” says Soto, who uses a prosthetic leg and got her start in adapted track and field with Colón.
“When I have free time, I like to go out with my family, but in general I’m busy training with the Para athletes,” Colón says. Her day begins with a breakfast her husband makes. Then she commutes to a school where she teaches the mechanics of sports. In the afternoons, she tutors physical education skills, and following that, she meets with her Club de Atletismo Adaptado. “I encourage them with positive speech about all the things they are capable of achieving in sports. I bring the routines prepared. I don’t make it up” on the spot, she says. “They always arrive at practice happy and with a desire for self-improvement.”
In 2021, Colón saw the potential for Para athleticism in López, a 16-year-old athlete with a motor disability that affects the right side of his body, the result of a brain hemorrhage at birth. She invited him to the track and, after evaluating him, introduced Vélez, his mother, to Paralympism. That’s what brought them together.
Yasmín Porrata Morán, GPJ Puerto Rico
Vélez’s children connected her with sports. She is the mother of three table tennis players, one of whom is López. When Colón introduced Vélez’s son to the Paralympic movement, it opened the door for him to other athletic disciplines, like track and field. “Ever since he was little, we’d been searching for a venue where he could play as a Paralympian,” Vélez says.
In 2018, Vélez traveled with her son to a tournament in Texas, United States, where he successfully qualified as a Para table tennis player, able to compete nationally and internationally with his peers. In Puerto Rico, there is no means to qualify as a Paralympic table tennis player, nor is there a space to compete as a Para athlete in the sport. Vélez is determined to make these two things a reality.
Her efforts led her to create the Federación Paralímpica de Tenis de Mesa de Puerto Rico, officially founded in 2023. Vélez is the president. “Being a federation member is extremely important because it means you are part of an organization that represents you. Emely helped me a great deal in setting up the federation, with the regulations, understanding Paralympism, combining motherhood with sports and being fair in what I’m doing,” says Vélez, who also owns a restaurant.
Four active Para athletes have joined the federation, and two others are in the process of qualifying. “We’re in our infancy. We need more Para athletes to come to us, and we need to attract female [athletes],” Vélez says. “The federation was created so others like Jeriel can compete.” Vélez tries to balance between her roles as federation president, business owner and mother by finding time to read and be with her loved ones.
In addition to training Para athletes, another of Vélez’s goals is for the federation to be able to evaluate and qualify table tennis players for the Paralympic Games, which would be a first for Puerto Rico. To accomplish this, she is joining forces with Dr. Gabriel René Santiago, the federation’s vice president. “Once he completes his medical training and takes the courses required by the International Paralympic Committee, he will be able to practice as an accredited assessor in Puerto Rico. This will streamline the process, so our table tennis athletes don’t have to travel in order to qualify, and it will help the federation to grow,” Vélez says.
Yasmín Porrata Morán, GPJ Puerto Rico
Germán Pérez, president of the National Paralympic Committee of Puerto Rico, thinks that Colón and Vélez have taken their responsibilities with their children to another level. “Their support has been tremendous, providing opportunities to other athletes and getting the movement to grow,” he says.
The two mothers’ work has garnered results: Their children qualified to be part of Puerto Rico’s delegation to the 2023 Parapan American Games, which took place in Santiago, Chile, in November, along with the Pan American Games. Both are eager to see the Puerto Rican Paralympic movement grow, and to see more local Para athletes win medals at worldwide events.