In the world of athletics, Joseph Singleton has earned the title of Olympian. But in the everyday world, he symbolizes something even greater: inspiration.
Mr. Singleton is paralyzed from the waist down, the result of a spinal cord injury from a 1977 car crash. Although he must use a wheelchair for mobility, that hasn't stopped him from becoming an accomplished power-lifter who recently earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Sports Team.
The muscular 38-year-old from Columbia will compete this summer alongside able-bodied Olympians. The Paralympics is a festival for disabled athletes that is being held in conjunction with the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"When you hear about disabled people, all you hear about is them being locked in the house collecting Social Security checks," he said. "I'm happy, of course, but really I'm just doing something to keep from getting bored."
Mr. Singleton is seldom bored.
In addition to weight training three days a week -- likely to increase as the Olympics draw near -- he plays wheelchair basketball, trains for wheelchair road races and is a full-time student at Bowie State College.
And last year, he earned a first-degee black belt in martial arts.
"I earned every bit of that belt right here from this chair," he said. "I started taking lessons while in this chair and that's where I got the black belt from. It can be done if you work hard enough, and I did."
As proof of his martial arts prowess, Mr. Singleton challenged an observer to approach him behind. Within seconds, Mr. Singleton subdued the man. He said he could have used several methods to ward off an attack.
"It doesn't matter how you come at me and it doesn't matter that I'm in this chair, because you can learn to do this if you want to," he said.
He regards as his greatest accomplishment making the Paralympic Wheelchair Sports Team, especially considering that he's been weight lifting for only two years.
"I'm proud because this is something that I never, ever thought would happen to me," he said. "Even when I started lifting, I never thought this would be the result. Before I knew it, I was kicking butt."
Mr. Singleton was in the military service when the auto accident left him with a broken back. Weight lifting, he discovered, was a way to counter the years of "being in and out of the hospital."
"I was always getting sick and I had a lot of surgery," he said. "When I started lifting, I didn't want to be like those bodybuilders with the big egos. I was just doing it for health."
He noticed that soon after he began lifting, his strength increased greatly, so he entered several competitions, including last year's National Veteran's Games and the Victory Games, where he won gold medals.
Patricia Long, operations manager for the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, which worked with the Olympic Committee in selecting the Paralympic athletes, said Mr. Singleton had been impressive at the trials in Alabama.
"We're looking forward to seeing some real good results from him in Barcelona," Ms. Long said.
Mr. Singleton trains at the Supreme Court in Columbia under the guidance of trainer David Hindle. At a qualifying meet in Birmingham, Ala., in late March, Mr. Singleton bench-pressed 187 1/2 pounds in the 114-pound weight class.
"I knew he had the strength to make the team. The long shot was getting his weight down" below the 114-pound limit, Mr. Hindle said. "His form was pretty off, and we had to work with that."
However, both Mr. Hindle and Mr. Singleton feel that 187 1/2 pounds won't be enough to win a medal at the Paralympics in Spain. He hopes to lift well over 200 pounds by the summer.
And even if he doesn't win this year, he plans to try again at the 1996 Olympics.
"Here I am representing the U.S.A. in the Olympics," he said. "If I haven't done anything else positive in my life, I've represented my country -- both in the service and now in the Olympics."