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Stories of how people in cities, towns, regions across the country are contributing to their communities … uniting them. With all the talk of democracy under threat, America Amplified, WUSF and public media stations across the nation wanted to see what was working.

In Louisiana, fostering community is the name of the game for adaptive sports athletes and coaches

Children and three adults around a school sign
Stephanie Lamparez
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Courtesy
Stephanie Lamparez, bottom right, with Team Gumbo at the National Juniors Meet in St. Louis, Missouri, 2008.

Stephanie Lamparez is a physical therapist in New Iberia, Louisiana. But she is also a para-athlete coach and has been for years who's brought teams of Louisiana para-athletes to participate in elite competitions. She's also built a community of athletes along the way.

Stephanie Lamparez doesn’t want this recognition. At least that’s according to her daughter Alexandra Baddeaux, who accompanied her mother to the WWNO station New Orleans on a hot summer day in August.

“She wants to promote the program and promote the team, but she doesn’t want to be in the spotlight,” said Alexandra. “She’d happily keep working from the sidelines without any recognition.”

Stephanie, or as she has come to be known by many of the athletes she’s coached, “Mama Steph,” is perhaps the biggest advocate for athletes with disabilities in the entire state. Her journey into this community began shortly after she received her physical therapy degree from the University of South Alabama and began working in the school system in her hometown of New Iberia. That’s when she first discovered adaptive sports.“There was an APE teacher who said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a track event coming up, can you help me with some kids?’” Stephanie remembered. “They needed help positioning in their wheelchairs to participate. That was back in 1991.”

Two wheelchair racers competing on the track
Stephanie Lamparez
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Junior Nationals meet in Chicago, 2010

Now more than 30 years later, Lamparez is still coaching. Although she might not look like your standard athletic coach. With long silver hair and soft, soothing voice, it’s hard to imagine her screaming at young athletes to “pick up the pace.” That’s because her form of coaching focuses more on finding the best sport for each athlete while accounting for both their strengths and limitations.

“Whether it’s a racing wheelchair or a throwing chair. Or what would be their best sport? Is it track and field or should we steer them more towards archery?” she said, sharing examples of what she takes into consideration. “Looking at the child as a whole, their movement patterns, their spasticity, their strength. And how do we help them be the best they can?”

Boy with right arm immobilized pulls bow with his mouth
Stephanie Lamparez
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Archery competition at Junior Nationals in Phoenix, Arizona, 2012

Lamparez began her coaching career with Games Uniting Minds and Bodies —‘GUMBO’ for short. Today, she’s the president. And many of the athletes who have participated say that Lamparez has advocated for them both on the field and in the classroom.

According to Anne Marie Herbert, “If we needed something in our day to day school life or if we weren’t getting something, she knew who to talk to or who to raise this issue with.”

Herbert is a high school senior from Denham Springs, a suburb of Baton Rouge. She has stated that many people with dwarfism like herself are often encouraged to go into Special Olympics, or simply not encouraged to participate in sports at all. But Lamparez ensured there was a place for her at the more competitive paralympic level. Soon, Lamparez had Herbert competing in events like long jump and javelin. Events that Herbert says she, “never thought I could do,” but “really grew to love.”

girl jumps in a long jump competition with a woman watching
Anne Marie Hebert
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Anne Marie Hebert competes in long jump.

Another one of Lamparez’s former athletes, Ryan Conley, participated in GUMBO Sports for 14 years. A native of Farmerville, Louisiana who has cerebral palsy, Conley remembers how “Mama Steph” helped build his confidence both on and off the track.

“Before every meet she would tape me up with kinesio tape and make sure my muscles were loose,” he said. Of course, as a trained physical therapist, Lamparez always made sure her athletes were stretched and comfortable. But perhaps more significantly, Lamparez would drive Ryan, along with her other athletes, all across the country for competitions.

“If we have a meet that’s more than 12 hours, they’ll come stay at my house the night before,” said Lamparez. “Then we all load up in the van and drive 12 hours to the meet.”

boy wearing No. 239 running on a track
Stephanie Lamparez
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In the last 30 years, Lamparez, coached, recruited, transported, and advocated for hundreds of athletes with disabilities all across Louisiana. Including her own children, Nico and Alexandra.

Both were born with cerebral palsy, and both have competed at the elite para level. In fact, it was Nico who introduced his Mom to another athlete - Hagan Landry - at a high school cross country meet.

“Nico came up to me,” Landry remembered. “And then Stephanie Lamparez came up to me and told me about the Paralympics.”

Landry, who has dwarfism, was soon introduced to shot put. And Stephanie began bringing him to clinics and meets across the nation. After years of intense training, Landry made it to the Paralympic trials, then the 2022 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. He received a silver medal in the men’s shot put F41 event.

But not long after his big win, his mind wandered back to Lamparez.

“I got back to the village and sat out on the balcony and I really was just thinking, ‘If I never ran cross country, Steph would have never found me.’ And I’m really thankful for that.”

Track runner celebrating, holding an American flag behind him
Hagan Landry
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Hagan Landry after winning a silver medal in the men’s shot put F41 at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But when Lamparez sees the success of one of her former athletes she’s hardly surprised. And while the pandemic may have paused her coaching career for two years, she plans to bring another team of athletes to next year’s National Junior Games in Birmingham. Because when she looks at all the athletes she has coached throughout the years, she sees all of the things they are.

“They are athletes with a disability,” she said. “But they want to be known as an athlete first who happens to have a disability. I always tell them you can do anything you want. You might have to do it differently. It might take you longer to learn it. We might have to modify. But you can do it.”

Two children hold a sign saying: Gumbo Kids The Best Of Louisiana
Stephanie Lamparez
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Stephanie Lamparez’s children, Alexandra and Nico, wave the GUMBO flag at the Junior Nationals Meet in Tampa, 2005.