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Linda Mastandrea
Linda Mastandrea trained at DRES and went on to win 15 gold and 5 silver medals in the Paralympic Games

A Few Minutes With Linda Mastandrea

Vince Lara from the College of Applied Health Sciences spends a few minutes with Linda Mastandrea, a multi-time Paralympic champion who trained at the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at Illinois and got her bachelor's degree and law degree from the University of Illinois.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I speak with Illinois grad and FEMA Disability Coordinator Linda Mastandrea. She talks about working with Tim Nugent, Marty Morse, and Brad Hedrick, and her memories of Illinois.

So, Linda, of course, you are a decorated Paralympic champion-- 15 gold medals, five silver medals in international wheelchair track competition, including gold and silver at the '96 Olympics and Paralympics in Atlanta. So I want to ask you, what inspired you to try wheelchair racing?

LINDA MASTANDREA: So I think it was a couple of things. I came to the University of Illinois not because I intended to compete in wheelchair sport, but because it was an in-state school. And it was a good school. And I was coming here with my twin sister.

It was just literally by accident that I got involved in wheelchair sports and all. I sprained my ankle. I started coming here for rehab.

I met Brad Hedrick. He started trying to recruit me for wheelchair basketball. And I started actually with playing wheelchair basketball.

He and Sharon Hedrick and other players on the team kept after me for about a year. I thought, you know what? I'm a kid with disability.

I don't play sports. I'm not an athlete. And it really took about a year of convincing me to even try it.

And once I tried basketball, and that opened the door to me looking at myself in a different way, and that's really what led me down the path of even being willing to try track once I saw that I actually could play a sport and I could be athletic. And then that just opened my eyes to this infinite world of possibility.

VINCE LARA: Now, Tim Nugent, who is considered the father of accessibility, recently got this tremendous honor from the NBA. I don't know if you noticed that he got what's one step short of induction into the NBA. He was given the award the John W Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to basketball. And I'm wondering what lessons did you take from Tim in your time here?

LINDA MASTANDREA: Great question. So I think what I really learned from him is that you don't take no for an answer. And you don't give up. He was relentless in pursuing his passion.

And his passion was opening the door to education for kids with disabilities and using the vehicle of sports to open that door. And for me, the vehicle of sports opened my life to looking at myself in a whole different way. It put me on a different path than I ever would have conceived of being a Paralympic athlete, pursuing a law degree, moving out of the Chicago area to pursue careers out of state. It just-- it made me look at myself differently. And so I think what I really took from him is to go through those doors that you're opening and to take those chances and to be relentless and to not give up.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, Tim was considered a person who would tell you whatever was on his mind, whether that was positive or negative. What's the fondest memory you have of him?

LINDA MASTANDREA: I think the thing that stands out for me is hearing him speak at our sports banquet's. And when you're a kid, you laugh at the older people. You're like oh my god, the stories.

And we've heard this thing 800 times before. You giggle and you laugh. But I look back on it now, and I am so grateful that I had those experiences and those memories and got to hear from him firsthand.

Now, people will only, they'll read about him. They'll maybe see a video clip. But I got to sit in the room with this guy, which is phenomenal. And I think more recently, I was doing a piece about the London 2012 Para-Olympic games, reading an article.

And I had a chance to sit and talk with Mr. Nugent for, I want to say, three hours. And we could've gone for a week. He just was such a font of information.

He had so many stories. His memory was impeccable. I'm so jealous of that because I don't even have that.

VINCE LARA: Funny, now Marty Morse was the first-- considered the first track, wheelchair track coach here. But you started playing basketball. So how did Marty convince you to try wheelchair track and field, if you will?

LINDA MASTANDREA: Yeah, so he, too, was pretty relentless and was really encouraging because I-- even then, I doubted myself. I still had a little bit of fear. And he was just so encouraging and so positive and really wanted you to take those chances.

And he just kept encouraging me and said just try it. If you don't like it, you don't have to. And I will say that I did not get fully on board with it while I was a student here. And it really wasn't until after.

But I kept in touch with Marty. And this was before the internet, before social media. Marty literally would write workouts for me and mail them to me.

We would talk on the phone and adjust. And we'd talk about what I was doing and what we needed to tweak and everything else. And that's really where it began.

VINCE LARA: That's amazing.


VINCE LARA: Now, your time at DRES coincided with Jean Driscoll, who is another well-known champion. Did the two of you drive each other to compete, do you think? And was there an immediate bond between you? Because of-- maybe there was that competitive streak for both of you.

LINDA MASTANDREA: Yeah, so we actually literally passed. I heard she was coming. But we became US teammates. And so we always-- I think there's something, though, unique about US teammates who have that Illinois connection.

There's just this unshakable bond that you have coming out of this program. I think it instills such a sense of pride and passion and connection that you are always at home with your fellow Illini.

VINCE LARA: That's very true. And the university has become the place to go for Paralympic training. That's a credit to who? Was that a credit to Dr. Nugent, to Marty, to every-- Brad?

LINDA MASTANDREA: It's a credit to really all of them, starting with Dr. Nugent and his unshakable belief in the power of sport can build the lives of people with disabilities to Marty's desire to build up that athletics program, to Brad's desire to starting with basketball, then the whole of DRES. I think that all of us that came through this program really understood the power of Paralympic sport to positively impact lives and to change the trajectory of lives of people with disabilities I think.

But understanding that that's only part of the story because without education, Paralympics is only-- it's just a piece of it, right? And so I think that the power in Illinois is the focus on not only giving over the athletic skills that you need to be a fierce competitor, but making sure that you have the educational skills and the life skills that you need to become a successful adult no matter what path you pursue.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, and speaking of what path did you pursue, you've gone many paths.


VINCE LARA: Right, you became a lawyer. You're an accomplished writer. I mean, one of the reasons you're on campus is you're writing a piece about Jean Driscoll. And now you're in this position with FEMA. So tell me a little bit about what you do with FEMA and how does that connect you to your Illinois life.

LINDA MASTANDREA: Sure, so at FEMA, I am the director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. That office sprang up out of the post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act Katrina. And when the emergency management profession really saw the impact of natural disasters on people with disabilities on such a large scale recognized that there needed to be more attention paid to that issue in particular, and created the position and the office in FEMA.

And so my job really is to do a couple of things. It's to help FEMA as an agency do its job better when it comes to serving people with disabilities before, during, and after disasters. But we also do that through helping our state and local and territorial and travel partners do their jobs better. But we give them the training and the tools they need and the resources they need to understand how do I help people with disabilities in my community?

And so, we really are tackling it, if you will, from the community level up and from the federal level down and all aspects. Because the primary goal of it is to ensure that as a community, we are as prepared as possible to as individuals and as agencies, to help people with disabilities, who are impacted by disasters.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Linda Mastrandrea. To hear more about Illinois in the College of Applied Health Sciences, find our podcast on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and other services by searching A Few Minutes With. See you next time.

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