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Changed the Game: Candace Cable overcame drug abuse to become an adaptive-sport legend

Eric Edholm
·10 min read
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"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

WHM
WHM

Candace Cable was a free-spirited teenager in California in the late 1960s and early '70s. Her family wasn’t wealthy by any means, but she felt she had the freedom, she said, to pursue whatever dreams entered her head and chase whatever adventure she thought sounded fun and interesting.

“I’ve always been a person who has the ability to be really flexible and adapt to my surroundings,” Cable told Yahoo Sports. “'I’ll try that! I’ll check this out!' I always felt like I wanted to try everything.

“People would ask me, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I’d say, ‘I want to try it all.’”

Skipping the college route at first, Cable even got a fake ID at age 19 to bartend in Long Beach, Calif. 

“I figured out that the money was better with jobs where they served alcohol,” she said. When her friends moved to Lake Tahoe shortly after that, she followed and tried to land a similar job at one of the local casinos.

When they told Cable that women weren’t hired for bartender spots, she pivoted and landed a gig as a blackjack dealer.

“I knew I was breaking the law,” she said. “But as with any of us when we do something we know is wrong, we justify it. We just come up with a reason and do it. So that’s what I did.”

Cable was living a relatively carefree life. She was a California kid living in the moment, a bit of a risk-taker willing to shift gears whenever life’s next opportunity came her way.

But Cable’s next life challenge would be one she could never have anticipated.

The car accident that changed her life

In the late summer of 1975, at the age of 21, she was in a serious automobile accident up in the mountains that forever changed her trajectory. Cable suffered a serious spinal-cord injury and was told she’d never walk again, bound to a wheelchair as a paraplegic.

All of a sudden, the limitless opportunities Cable had dreamt of felt completely out of reach.

“As soon as I was told I would never walk again, I had this instant feeling that I was worthless,” she said, “and that there were no opportunities for me anymore. I would spend the rest of my life in a nursing home or some other facility like that.

“I began to think later, where did that idea come from? I didn’t know anyone with a disability before. The only wheelchairs I saw were maybe dealing cards to older people at my tables. But I was 21. Where did that thought come from?”

Cable spent many years pondering that question. But as she rose from a kid who never really played sports to one of the elite athletes in adaptive sports over a nearly three-decade career, Cable was able to arrive at an answer.

“In society we have a lot of biases around people who identify as disabled,” she said. “They’re identified as having less value than people who don’t identify as disabled.”

Candace Cable became a giant in adaptive sports, winning 12 Paralympic medals.
Candace Cable became a giant in adaptive sports, winning 12 Paralympic medals. (Courtesy of Cable)

As she traveled the world competing in some of the most daunting physical challenges in various adaptive sports over a 27-year career, Cable has seen dismantling this stigma as perhaps her most difficult — and most noble — endeavor. She viewed it as no different a pursuit than bucking the system as an underaged card dealer trying to make more money in a system that worked against her.

“Throughout my life I’ve looked for ways to break that down in the work I do,” she said. “I did it as an athlete and I’ve tried to continue doing it even after I’ve stopped competing in events. It’s been a lifelong journey (to that end).”

‘Oh, you’re an athlete?’

The immediate shock of Cable’s accident naturally had a profound effect on her life and her outlook.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go. The people around me at that time didn’t have a lot of time. I isolated myself. I slept a lot. I believed my disability was just going to go away. I was going to wake up one day and it was just going to be gone.”

Cable eventually became chemically dependent. One doctor provided pain medication. Another supplied Quaaludes. An acquaintance provided powdered heroin for her to snort. The drugs accomplished the goal of numbing her sensation and ridding Cable of the emotional and physical pain she was enduring.

But it also throttled her into full-blown addiction. Cable woke up from her drug-addled haze one day in 1978 and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I need help.” She told her mother of her dependency, and the road to recovery began there.

Therapy and counseling were big helps early on, and Cable said they continue to help her now to this day. She had enrolled at Long Beach State after the accident, joining the school’s Disabled Student Services group. For the first time since her injury, Cable felt like she belonged somewhere.

“I thought, I want to hang out with these people,” she said.

From there, she tried wheelchair tennis recreationally. It was a fun diversion, but the sport never grabbed Cable spiritually. Next she tried swimming. But she resisted the competitive aspect of it and hadn’t seriously thought about taking that step.

“Before my accident, I wasn’t an athlete at all,” Cable said. “I had no interest at all in competitive sports. But after, it was because I wanted to be a part of a community.”

Eventually she was invited to participate in a 5K at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Cable admittedly didn’t know what a 5K was at first. But she joined the handful of other wheelchair participants in the race. By the time she crossed the finish line, Cable was hooked.

“My first thought was, ‘Well, I wonder if I could get really good at this?’” she said.

Wheelchair racing was barely an established sport at the time. But Cable was part of the movement to modernize the sport and provide the proper equity to the athletes competing in these incredible demanding events.

Of the three sports she competed in, Candace Cable believes cross-country skiing was the most demanding — and rewarding. (Wallace A. Marsh, WAM3.com)
Of the three sports she competed in, Candace Cable believes cross-country skiing was the most demanding — and rewarding. (Wallace A. Marsh, WAM3.com)

And she was more than good at it. Cable would go on to win 84 marathons, including six times at the famed Boston Marathon. Her Paralympic Games debut came in 1980 — just two years after kicking her addiction — winning her first three medals there and vaulting her into a 27-year career that included 12 medals in three different sports.

After wheelchair racing, Cable got involved with downhill and cross-country skiing — which she called “one of the hardest sports but also one of the most rewarding” — and dominated both of those fields, too. All told she participated in nine combined Summer and Winter Paralympics and became the first women to win summer and winter Paralympic medals in 1992.

“Everyday people would see me in a wheelchair and ask what I do, and I would say, ‘Oh, I am a professional athlete,’” she said. “You could just see the confusion in their eyes. ‘Oh, you’re an athlete?’ For them, athletes looked a certain way — they had a certain image. Athletes are healthy, and disabilities don’t seem healthy, they’d think.

“Which, of course, is ridiculous.”

Cable is living proof. She was actually fighting two good fights — the challenge of navigating a difficult course versus other elite competitors was hard enough. But Cable also was devoting her craft to changing the narrative of adaptive sports and fighting ableism that still pervaded around her.

“We, as athletes, were not only competing in these really difficult and demanding events and challenges,” Cable said, “but we were constantly having to dismantle these beliefs and stigmas. I had decided I wanted to make my life’s work to break down these barriers and educate people about the myths that they believe around disability. There were institutionalized barriers we needed to break down.”

Candace Cable's incredible list of achievements

Cable’s resumé is dizzying. How one person can accomplish so much — and without the use of their legs — simply boggles the mind. She became a titan in the world of adaptive sports and a hero to many of the competitors who viewed her as the trailblazer the sports and the disabled community needed to receive the respect they deserved.

She has volunteered for countless organizations, including the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Open Doors Organization, UNCIEF and the State Department Speaker and Specialist program, and Cable has served as the Director of Paralympic and Disability Engagement for the LA2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid.

There also have been countless speaking engagements and contributions to scores of events and foundations. Cable was the flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2002 Opening Ceremonies. Since retiring from competition, she attends and participates regularly with the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, (CRPD) and Sustainable Development Goals, (SDG) meetings at the United Nations. And you can add contributions for about a dozen other advocacy groups to that list.

Oh, and she’s also a wheelchair racing coach for Angel City Sports.

“I’m really grateful for my just ridiculously fun sports platform where I have now, competing in elite competitive sports for 27 years,” she said. “I have now a chance to do something really special.”

Does Cable ever tire? Is the burden ever too great?

“The short answer is yes, of course,” Cable said. “But each time in my career where I said, ‘This is too much’ or ‘This is too hard,’ I sought community and I sought professional help. Every single time I felt overwhelmed, I got help from others.

“But I always also had this mindset of trying something new. I always had that little voice in my head that said, ‘Well, this might be interesting. Let’s check that out!’ That’s how I was able to do three different sports at a high level. And that’s how I’ve been able to take on so many missions that have been so close to my heart.”

The fight continues every day for Cable. As hard as the daily physical challenges are for people with disabilities face — when and where to go to the bathroom, how to navigate uneven sidewalks, and so on — she believes that the battle against public perception and dealing with the unseen, hidden daily struggles are typically the most daunting.

Even as attitudes slowly change toward ableism, Cable still knows from many in her community have to battle feelings of isolation and desperation.

“We all need help,” she said. “The support groups out there are really great systems for that help. It can be anything from asking, ‘How do you do this?’ to just opening up on what people are feeling.

“I’ve heard (people say), ‘One day I am having a great day, and the next day I want to kill myself.’ Talking to other people who are experiencing this oppression is a huge part of that process. The goal now is to get people outside of those groups to be willing to listen to that struggle and willing to not judge them, so that they can feel that (universal) support.”

So whether it’s speaking to a room of thousands about her journey or coaching a 6-year old on the ins and outs of wheelchair racing, Cable believes she’s found her calling — and that it turns out she was built for this journey all along.

“I discovered early on that I am incredibly flexible,” Cable said, “and that I had the ability to see a bigger vision beyond what society’s vision was for me.”

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.