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Challenger Flies At Paralympic Opening Ceremony in Atlanta – 1996

April 30, 2019

On August 16, 1996, athletes with disabilities – coming from 127 countries – gathered in Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, GA for the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Paralympics.

The Olympics had just ended, and over 60,000 enthusiastic fans gathered once again to see 3,500 athletes competing in Atlanta’s second round of competition—including Vice President Al Gore and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Other celebrities participated in the pageantry as well: Christopher Reeve was master of ceremonies, while Teddy Pendergrass performed The Star Spangled Banner. Other celebrities included Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli, and Hall & Oates.

A new star would debut in Olympic Stadium that day: a Bald Eagle named Challenger.

After an earlier audition prior to the Paralympics, Challenger was invited to participate in the Opening Ceremonies.

Al Cecere, founder of the American Eagle Foundation, coordinated all facets of Challenger’s flight to the tiniest detail, resulting in a flawless performance! At the end of the oval-shaped 80,000-seat stadium, from the top of the Olympic Torch, Jim Heptinstall, a staff member of the American Eagle Foundation, released Challenger. Pete McManus, another AEF staffer, caught Challenger as he landed perfectly on the glove, just after circling a flag pole with a U.S. flag blowing in the wind. This would be Challenger’s longest flight in distance that he ever made, and it was his first free-flight into an open stadium.

Participating in the 1996 Paralympics was an important milestone in Challenger’s career, and he would go on to become the most famous Bald Eagle in the world.

At approximately 4 minutes 11 seconds into the following video, you will see Challenger fly into the stadium and land on Pete McManus’ glove.

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