Sculpting Paralympian Mohamed Lahna

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A triathlon is perhaps the most difficult physical challenge conceivable, but can you imagine doing consecutive distance swimming, cycling and running with only one leg? 

While contemplating a third Paralympian to feature in my U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Visitor Center series in Colorado Springs, I imagined portraying an athlete who runs with a prosthetic blade. Other Paralympic athletes highly recommended their friend Mohamed Lahna, a champion triathlete who, after the triathlon was dropped from Paralympic competition, joined the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team. 

Mo was born in Casablanca, Morocco without a right femur or a leg connection to his hip. His tiny foot is where his knee should be. Because of Mo's condition, he was not allowed to participate in school sports. Although he felt sad and frustrated, this discouraging situation only fired his ambition to participate in sports at the highest level. 

His first opportunity came at age 11 when Mo's father introduced him to a Moroccan Paralympic swimmer who mentored Mo. He did not know yet that he would one day swim the Strait of Gibraltar. At age 20, he was fitted with his first real prosthetic. Mo rode a bike for the first time at age 25 and crossed the Atlas Mountains on it the following year. At 27 he ran for the first time and competed in a marathon a few months later. In 2014, Mohamed was the first adaptive athlete to complete the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. Mohamed has won four gold medals to date as well as 13 podium finishes and was ranked fourth in the world as a Paralympic triathlete.  After winning the bronze medal for Morocco in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Mo joined the USA Paralympic Triathlon Team so he could get the best training possible. 

Photo credit: Genki Yamashita

Photo credit: Genki Yamashita

Besides being super-athletic, highly competitive, and exceptionally friendly, Mohamed also excels at parenting. His two young boys accompanied him to my studio for his sculpture-forming session and the  morning cycle training he did before he arrived. The boys calmly sat while munching on a hearty snack. Later, as they became bored, each curled up to nap in their chairs. They were far more patient than most adults! It was quite apparent to my assistant and me the deep, loving and understanding relationship between father and sons. Mo's boys acceptingly followed his simple instructions and requests delivered with a soft but firm voice and steady gaze. 

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Like my other Paralympic art models, Sophia Herzog and Brandon Lyons, I found Mo to be very outgoing, generous, humble and determined. His size and physique is that of a muscular Olympic gymnast. My only concern in creating a sculpture with Mo was my ability to incorporate his prosthetic running blade within the sculpture, without creating confusion for the viewer. But for Mo and me, it was definitely worth giving it our best effort. Happily, the uncommon form of Mo's blade turned out to be a fascinating feature, enticing the viewer and spurring curiosity. Mo is obviously running fast, yet there is something mechanical and strikingly different about his front leg. 

Mo's sculpture is even more fascinating to walk around in person. You can see his powerful body and speed emerging from its surrounding sculpted landscape. Yet the artwork also expresses itself as a lively, colorful painting. I am delighted and gratified to know Mohamed Lahna and to share his story with you through my art. Let's cheer him on as he pursues Gold for his beloved adopted country, U.S.A., in Tokyo 2020!

 You can learn more from Mohamed's website (watch the videos!), Team webpage and Triathlon Profile webpage.

 Follow the conversation #SculptingMohamed #SculptingPara 

 Follow the athletes and their mission on Instagram @USParalympics 

Sculpting Paralympian Brandon Lyons

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As I inquired about the next Paralympic model for my United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee Visitor Center art project, Brandon Lyons was ecstatically recommended: “You should see this guy, I saw him doing endless pull-ups while in his wheelchair!,” “He’s an animal!,” “Yeah, he’d be great!.” But at that point, I hadn’t read into the depths of his story. 

His Para journey began Memorial Day, 2014, at age 24. Brandon dove off a shallow pier and suffered an accident that caused paralysis below his chest. After a terrifyingly devastating event (including a problem with the helicopter enroute to the hospital) and all-consuming rehabilitation work, Brandon was back to his job at Ernst & Young within 4 months. In 2016, Brandon discovered the joy of handcycling; then, in 2017 he made the USA Paralympic Cycling team becoming a resident of the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center (OPTC). Now he’s pedaling hard to win gold at Tokyo in 2020, and along the way, competing in fabulous, faraway places like Italy.

I was very pleased and honored when Brandon eagerly responded "yes" to my invitation. Even more so when I discovered how wonderful he is to work with and to know personally. The following Saturday, on his way to his weekly cycle training in the nearby foothills, Brandon stopped by my studio so we could design his art. When I went out to meet and assist him in the parking lot, Brandon had already gotten himself into his wheelchair, his handcycle out of his car, backpack and all, ready to go.

Brandon and others at the O&PTC wanted me to cast him posed in his cycle. I’d never cast anything that large, let alone a figure combined with a thingamabob, so I didn’t think it could work. I had something else in mind, but I wanted to at least give their vision a try. When I stepped back to look at the form of this first design, I was elated. It conveyed the energy, power and speed of Brandon, man and machine. 

After the structure was formed and removed from Brandon seated inside his bike, we were awed by its size and physical detail; however, as the minutes passed, it started to slowly collapse from it's heightened weight, like the Wicked Witch melting to the floor. I was horrified, yet determined. I could not let my Paralympic subjects down by giving up. 

Later on, I was able to resurrect the structure mostly to its original form. It was still powerful, fascinating, and Brandon's figure emerged through it. But was it good enough? Could it still serve to connect viewers to Brandon and inspire them with his story? Brandon was leaving soon for a 10-day competition trip. If I was to meet my self-imposed deadline to have it installed at the USOC Visitor Center by the 5th anniversary of Brandon's paralyzing incident, there wasn't time to recast. 

Now what? I invited many people who were unfamiliar with Brandon's project to look at it so I could study their response. Thankfully, the look on their faces confirmed that this artwork was more than sufficient to fulfill its purpose. And for some who were familiar with my art, it was their favorite. Accidents and imperfections can be advantageous in art, allowing the mind's eye to imagine and invent. 

I wondered at the serendipity of it all–Brandon overcoming his permanent disability to participate fully in life, and his sculptures' once perfect form now altered, but still beautifully compelling. I also wondered how his feet disappeared from the structure, which curiously illustrates that this cyclist cannot use his legs. You wouldn't notice this about the sculpture unless it was pointed out, just like I now only see Brandon's vast abilities, not his disability nor wheelchair. 

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Brandon's art also reminds me that my art is often both a painting and a sculpture. Its form comes alive with big brush stokes and small, reflective highlights. As you walk around it, stepping closer and away, it seemingly transforms–like getting to know a person after seeing a first visual impression.  

When we returned to his car after that first design session, Brandon surprised me again by flinging open and holding the door for me as he allowed me to pull his precious, custom-fitted handcycle out of the studio. He could have managed to do this all himself, but just like making art, it was more gratifying for us to strive together. 

Click hear to watch news coverage of Brandon’s Sculpture unveiling.

Learn more about Brandon at BrandonMLyons.wixsite.com and TeamUSA.org and @iron.lyons

Follow the conversation at #Sculpting Para #SculptingBrandon

P.S. My ultimate goal is to help fund Brandons’ Epidural Stimulation Trial after Tokyo 2020. This is his next 5-year goal – to restore the functioning of his full body, thereby advancing treatment for all others facing spinal cord injuries. We will happily make a new painted sculpture for any person or entity wishing to sponsor Brandon’s recovery effort.

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Sculpting Paralympian Sophia Herzog

With a Blues Brothers’ “Mission-from-God!” determination, I’ve been seeking opportunities to create beautiful art of people that also portray unique physiques and personal appearance. This stems from my passion to counter the overwhelming number of pervasive images used to depict what “ideal” people should look like. These visual messages promote fear over love – fear of being imperfect, unlovable, and outside the norm. Instead, wouldn't life be more interesting if, for example, Victoria’s Secret’s annual TV special featured women of all sizes and shapes?

Simultaneously, people have been suggesting to me for months that they’d like to see my art cast from many types of athletes besides ballerinas. Then, the artistic photographer and owner of Robert Anderson Gallery suggested contacting the nearby US Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Flashbulb! This potential opportunity would fulfill my desire to portray both athletic bodies and uncommon bodies – by making art of Paralympians.

In turn, the USOPC saw my art as a perfect match for their Colorado Spring’s Training Campus Visitor Center. Although the USOPC is inundated with proposals from artists and photographers, they responded quickly to my outreach. I was invited to discuss my project while enjoying a behind the scenes tour and lunch at the athletes’ cafeteria. The greatest gift of that visit was meeting Sophia Herzog.

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I first noticed Sophia when I approached the Center’s reception counter, then again as she walked past me. Her body looked super-strong, beautifully curvaceous, yet intriguingly unusual. While introducing myself, I learned Sophia is an USOC Paralympic swimmer, silver medalist, and two-time World Champ in the breast stroke. (Plus since then, she broke the World Record for the 200m.) Sophia is also finishing her Broadcast-Business major while training for her final race in Tokyo 2020. Whew!

Later, I learned online that we share many interests and similarities, including a strong affection for making art. I have long-wanted to create figurative art that features water. So I invited Sophia to be my first USOC model to cast, but also to assist me with other steps in creating her art. From working with Sophia, I sense that she gives her all to any project she takes on. She immediately accepted my invitation to participate and came to my studio, plus saw my sculptures of dancers at Colorado Ballet.

Sophia is also decidedly self-confident and proud of her unique figure. For example, when we picked up lunch at a nearby Chinese buffet, the restaurant was packed with young families. I wondered how the kids would react to seeing Sophia’s 48” adult height and short arms and legs. (She has a dwarfism called achondroplasia.) I wondered how Sophia would feel and respond. Then I was comforted to realize she’s probably encountered this situation on a daily basis since she was first cognizant of being human. I was the one concerned and without such experience. Sophia went about the buffet same as me. Many customers did a slight double-take, then looked away. Kids spun around and bumped their parents or another child with a quizzical look on their faces. Then all went back to selecting food items.

This situation illustrates the commitment Sophia and I share to exemplify inclusion of everyone into all aspects of society, through our unique abilities and endeavors. Because of Sophia, these families could have a conversation about looking different and being similar. (Little did they know of her athletic accomplishments!) The more we see, the more familiar, comfortable, and accepting of “others” we become.

One of my favorite slogans I saw on the t-shirt of a man seated in his wheelchair says, “Don’t Dis My Abilities.” All I can see in Sophia and the persons I know facing “disabilities” is superior capabilities in most every aspect of life. How is it that Sophia could ever be considered “disabled?” She could swim circles around me, a former lifeguard.

Well for one, thing Sophia has to do maybe twice as many kicks and strokes! That’s an extra challenge. She recently had two knee surgeries – the breast stroke whip-kick is especially hard on knee joints. Sophia also had to believe she could put herself out there on the world stage. Likewise, Sophia’s body is more suited than mine to some situations. She could use both her hands and legs to grip and open a large artists’ gesso container in my studio. I could only wrestle the lid with my hands.

Sophia’s sculpture plus two more works will be installed at the USOC Visitors Center before July 4, 2019. We invite you to experience this emotionally compelling art and the athletes it represents. Plus, it is fascinating to see the entire Center. Perhaps you can be lucky enough to score a tour with Sophia.

Follow the conversation #SculptingSophia #SculptingPara

Follow Sophia’s journey on Instagram @SophiaHerzog and visit her Team webpage

Follow the athletes and their mission on Instagram @USParalympics