Any good documentary feels like a great novel, throwing you into someone’s shoes for a couple of hours, building waves of empathy through captivating storytelling. Netflix’s new documentary “Rising Phoenix” is certainly that, but it’s also one hell of a sports movie.
There are thrilling moments we get to relive with pulsating music, deft photography and visuals that help drive the narrative.
It’s hard to whittle down exactly the main story of “Rising Phoenix,” it’s equally about the origins and evolution of the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic movement.
It’s also very much about the rousing success of those games at the London Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 and the very near catastrophe of its absence in Rio four years later.
But it dives deep into so many wonderful and oftentimes harrowing stories from the athletes, each one an inspiration not only for their fortitude but their athletic ability.
You’ll meet Tatyana McFadden more intimately, an athlete who was orphaned as a baby as her Russian mother just couldn’t make ends meet.
She was adopted by Deborah McFadden and brought to the U.S. where she showed a predilection competition and speed. At 31, she has the distinction of holding 17 Paralympic medals, seven gold and is known as “the fastest woman in the world.”
You’ll meet Ellie Cole, another athlete whose parents had the excruciating decision before them when she was a child. Neurosarcoma near her knee meant extensive rounds of chemotherapy. When that didn’t work, the family decided ultimately to amputate the leg and save their daughter’s life.
“I asked my mom why she was so scared to have my leg amputated,” Cole said in the film. “And she was worried that I would be a completely different girl. My parents didn’t know anybody else that had a disability, and they were so worried that any opportunity that I was ever going to have when I was born was all of sudden going to be taken away from me.”
“Rising Phoenix” is an eye-opening experience for those not familiar with the Paralympic movement, meeting one athlete after another who excel not despite their disability but because of their human drive.
And that’s at the heart of the film. Yes, each and every one of the athletes in the movie have amazing stories as Xavier Gonzalez, former chief executive of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), says in “Rising Phoenix.”
But the overarching mission and one you can’t help but join by the end of this film is that every athlete deserves a field on which to compete, every athlete deserves to ride or run right there next to other athletes who happen to have two legs.
By the time you reach the Rio Olympics along with a contingent of people you have spent the better part of an hour with, you will feel the frustration of a world that so often treats the differently-abled as not good enough.
Jonnie Peacock relives his sprint at the 2012 London Games, and recounts the shift in narrative, a dramatic movement in what media decided to care about.
“In 2011, any interview I did, pretty much the first question was, ‘How did you lose your leg,’” Peacock said.
Athletes are often afforded the benefit of context, a lifetime of joy and failures the makeup who that person might be. An interviewer comes to that discussion knowing that there is an expansive story. But for Paralympians, it often gets whittled down to one moment and little else.
“In the months leading up to London and constantly after London, it was all about the sport. And there was a huge shift from story to sport, and that was incredible for me to see.”
The Paralympics showcases remarkable people that are competing in a worldwide event that is, it’s important to remember, parallel to the Olympics.
“Rising Phoenix” aims to change perceptions and succeeds with a documentary that is never heavy-handed or delivered from a lectern, rather it’s a little over 100 minutes of fast-paced storytelling that is as captivating as it is inspiring.
“Rising Phoenix” is streaming now on Netflix.