Wheelchair racer Josh George will have hands full at Rio Paralympics

ByJIM CAPLE via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
September 07, 2016, 8:10 AM

&#151; -- If the Olympics captivated you with inspiring stories last month in Rio de Janeiro -- such as runners Abbey D'Agostino and Nikki Hamblin falling and helping each other up to complete the women's 5,000 meters -- prepare for many more awesome, inspiring athletes this month at the Paralympics. These athletes picked themselves up from far worse falls yet became great examples to everyone: just keep going.

Consider five-time Paralympic medalist Josh George, who will compete in an astounding five events in Rio, his fourth Games. George fell out of a 12-story window when he was 4 years old. While he punctured his lungs and was paralyzed from his mid-chest down, he survived the 120-foot fall, perhaps an indication of his physical and mental strength. "I stuck the landing," he said with a laugh.

"I landed straight up and down on my feet in these short, little bushes next to the building, That's what really saved me," George added. "The combination of landing on my feet and in those bushes and the fact that when you're 4, your bones still aren't fully formed so they still have a little give to them. They absorbed enough for me to survive."

George, 32, has a great sense of humor and outlook on life, along with a love of sports. Despite needing a wheelchair to get around, he grew up playing basketball and tennis, swimming, racing track and more. His parents made sure that he used sports to continue moving forward.

"I give my parents all the credit in the world," he said. "They could not have handled the situation any better. They were amazing. They took it all in stride. They never looked at me as disabled. I was just as able as anybody else in their eyes, and that's how they treated me. I just had to use the wheelchair instead of walking."

The athletic activity turned out to be more than just fun and games for George.

"Sports created seeds of creative problem solving," he said, "to be able to find opportunities to maximize my potential. And it carried over in life. Once you learn how to recognize opportunities and once you learn how to utilize different tools to accomplish your goals, it gives you confidence in your ability to approach problems in your future and know you'll be able to figure out a solution."

After playing wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois, George has concentrated on track, an endeavor in which he has won five Paralympic medals, including gold in the 100 meters and silver in the 800 at the 2008 Beijing Games. In Rio, where the festivities start with Wednesday's opening ceremony, he will compete in the 400, 800, 1,500, 5,000 and marathon wheelchair races.

"I'm going to have my hands full," he said.

His hands also will be on the improving carbon-fiber wheelchairs that he says help racers put their power into forward momentum. "It doesn't necessarily make you faster, but it makes you more efficient," he said.

That efficiency helps especially over longer distances, such as the marathon. Wheelchair racers complete marathons considerably faster than runners -- George's personal best is 1 hour, 22 minutes, 55 seconds -- though uphill portions can be more grueling since the racers are relying on nothing but arm strength. Going downhill is much faster, with some reaching speeds of 40 mph, but that also leads to potential crashes.

"It's exciting," George said, "but sometimes you end up with your stomach in your throat."

It all makes the race as compelling as the regular marathon, and perhaps more so. It is like watching the combination of a running and cycling race.

Wheelchair racing is growing in attention and popularity. George says that when people see him arrive in an airport with his wheelchair now, they will ask him whether he will be racing in the city marathon. He usually is, having won eight marathons in Chicago, Los Angeles, London and the Twin Cities.

George also writes -- he studied journalism at Illinois -- and you can follow his experiences in Rio at joshgeorgeracing.com. He also is running a campaign called "Maximize Your Potential" that urges everyone to achieve their highest goals.

They can see that is possible in the Paralympics, which George hopes people will watch so they can witness how great the athleticism is -- especially in the United States.

"We have an interesting relationship with disability," George said of Americans. "It's very much a medical model where we think it's people who are broken or injured or old. And that's far from the case. We all have a different disability, but we're not really overcoming that disability. The overcoming part has come and gone. The struggle has come and gone. We are all out there now to maximize our abilities as an athlete and compete for a gold medal in the same sense the Olympians are."

Paralympians have picked themselves up. And now they are providing the same exciting thrills and inspiration as Olympians.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events