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Meet Jen Armbruster: Paralympic Medalist and Anti-Doping Education Athlete Presenter

Jen Armbruster dreamt of playing basketball in the Olympics until she started losing her sight as a teenager. But a gold medal was still in her future as she took up goalball and helped the American women’s team achieve victory in 2008 in Beijing. Over the course of seven Paralympics, she also helped her team earn a silver medal and two bronze medals.

With her experience as a Paralympian from 1992 to 2016, she is uniquely prepared and ready to help educate current elite athletes about the rules that help ensure clean sport, along with why it matters to compete the right way.

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Jen Armbruster:  I was 14 when I started losing vision, my right eye then my left eye and I was left with some peripheral vision out of my left eye. I was still playing competitive basketball for my high school. And they wrote an article about me playing competitive basketball, being visually impaired, and they looked me up in the phone book. Armbruster is fairly unique and they asked me to try the sport of goalball. I did, and in 1990, you know, it was my first nationals and then the US coach was there, recruited me there, and then I was selected to the team in ‘92 and I actually went totally blind two days before we left for the Barcelona Games. Since I was little, basketball was what was supposed to be my sport, what I was supposed to go to college on, I always dreamt of being in the Olympics, you know, watching Teresa Weatherspoon and Edwards and all those guys. And so that was always my goal as a kid was to be able to put USA on my back and represent. I just thought it would be in a different sport.

I got the call on the village that I would be carrying the flag for opening ceremonies in 2008. At that time, my father was also the head coach for the U.S. team. He’s former military, retired. And I didn’t have my guide dog with me or any of those kind of things. And I got the call actually walking around the village with him and they asked me, you know, they told me I was going to be the opening ceremonies flagbearer you know, obviously I was going to need an escort in, who did I want? And it was a no brainer. And, you know, my coach was my coach for so long but he got to be my dad in that moment. So to walk into the stadium, you know, with the flag, that meant a lot, obviously, to him in his career and for myself, not being able to go to the military after my vision loss, that was huge. Then to go through the Games in a must win situation, we made the top four for medal rounds and we went to semis in overtime, won the gold medal against China, in China with 3000 more seats put in the night before. It was amazing because I was, you know, the first gold medal, you know, that I got. And so to have that whole entire experience was kind of magical and very fairy book really.

A level playing field in sport is not just important. It’s to me the number one central thing, right? So you’re going against your competitors, you know, that’s a team sport or individual that you want the playing field to be equal for everyone. So everybody has that chance for competition. So it’s equal. It’s fair. So the hard work that you put in or sometimes it might even be the luck that comes in, but it’s at the end of the day, you knew you put everything out there and you put it out there fairly. And if you lost, you lost. But you know you lost giving everything you had and there was nothing gained by an advantage of cheating, whether that’s, you know, doping or that’s through equipment or whatever that might be. Like, I don’t see how you could look in the mirror and look at yourself or your teammates to get an unfair advantage.

I think the impact as an athlete talking to other athletes is pretty powerful just because you’ve been there before. So if the testing system’s a little scary the first time you know you’ve been there, you remember the first time USADA knocked on your door or you remember the first time on the big stage that you had to go pee in a cup in front of someone. You remember all of those or the overwhelming feeling of I have to check the Prohibited List in the middle of Walmart trying to figure out what I could take for my cold, you know, how many. So I think just having that common experience is huge because you’ve been there and you’ve done that. The importance for me to join this movement in wanting to be an athlete presenter really was just to be able to connect, one, back with the athletes. But then also just giving back to the sport, especially as you know, things come out a little bit more about, you know, just doping and enhancements in sport. And just to know that you can have a successful career without doping and how important that is because again, it’s not even just about the sport, it’s who you are, it’s integrity, it’s what you’re doing with the rest of your life as well. Because if you’re willing to cheat the system in sport, then you’re going to cheat your system in life. You know, whether that’s at work, that’s wherever, I just think those things carry over. So I think it’s really important, you know, from the young athletes all the way to the elite athletes that, you know, they’re learning that that’s part of what you need to to be able to do is not cheat. Right? Compete on a level playing field, work harder, you know, and get to where you need to be. Whether that’s on the playing field or the field of play, or if it’s at work or it’s at college getting into something, it’s test taking. You’ve got to put the work in, not take the shortcuts.