Racing Without Limits
Packed in a crowded hotel lobby following three days of racing at the 2012 Paralympic Track and Field trials in Indianapolis, Indiana, athletes anxiously awaited the judge’s announcement. Any minute, the roster for the newest US Paralympic Team would be read, naming athletes destined for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Track star Carleigh Dewald called home to her coach, Kevin Hansen, back in Eugene, Oregon, with a nervous declaration: “I think I’m gonna throw up!” she said. Fifteen minutes later, four years of grueling preparation paid off when Dewald and fellow Oregonian, Zach Abbott, each earned the title “Paralympian.”
Dewald and Abbott’s athleticism stems from wheelchair use in daily life because both entered this world with physical disabilities. Dewald was born with a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia, which severely limits motor control of her lower body. As a child she learned to focus her body’s center of gravity higher by balancing her torso on a large rubber ball, from which falling was not an option. This and other tasks in a lifetime of physical therapy have helped foster her competitive instincts, as well as a sense of independence.
Abbott was born with sacral agenesis, a condition that left no skeletal connection between his upper and lower body. Much of Abbott’s therapy has involved crawling and hanging, which has strengthened his arms for transferring in and out of his chair. For Abbott, the transfer from his street wheelchair to his racing equipment is completed in something of a vault, his feet never touching the ground, while Dewald instead shuffles her legs from one chair to the other.
Like other Paralympic track and field wheelchair athletes, Dewald and Abbott compete in sleek three-wheeled racing chairs, or “racers,” that are custom-made according to their athletic needs. Dewald prefers to sit atop her legs in the “praying position,” while Abbott, because of his less developed lower body, must orient his legs forward and use a retention strap to secure his torso in the seating platform.
The two athletes met while playing basketball through the wheelchair athletics program Oregon Disability Sports (ODS) in Portland. Faced with daunting posture issues, in high school Abbott trained weekly with a physical therapist to improve his shooting skills. His persistence to improve himself inspired Dewald, who raised her driveway hoop from seven to ten feet. Then, when Abbott showed his true passion was for track, Dewald saw her own potential in that as well.
Abbott, who now attends college in Arizona, was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He says it was in Oregon that he discovered his need for speed. “I just always liked going fast. I never needed a reason,” says a now 21-year-old Abbott of his first informal track meet eleven years ago. Soon after, Abbott’s parents learned about the Eugene-based program World Wheelchair Sports (WWC), which provides equipment and coaching to Paralympic hopefuls. Abbott was thrilled, and later on when his family told Dewald’s family about it, she started training for races at the age of 13. “Kevin [Hansen] got me in a racing chair and I never looked back,” says Dewald, who is now 17. “I was like, ‘This is a skill I have and I want to see how far I can take it.’ Back then, I just thought the chair looked cool, but my times kept getting better. I felt like I could really do something with it.”
Dewald’s and Abbott’s qualification at the Indianapolis trials guaranteed them spots at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, which are held two weeks after the traditional Olympic Games. Abbott became slated to compete in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, and 800-meter events, while Dewald lined up for 100-meter and 200-meter races. Abbott’s strongest event is the 100-meter, but Dewald’s is the 200-meter race. Track and field events are the most prominent part of the Paralympic Games, and have inspired intense national competition to advance to the highest tier. For many athletes, this meant that reaching international qualification times did not necessarily secure them a spot on the US team.
Since the summer of 1960, the Paralympics hasprovided a world stage to showcase physically disabled athletes and their skills. This year’s Paralympic Games had special meaning because they were held in London, the city where the event informally began in 1948. The competitions, which have featured disabled veteran athletes since World War II sparked interest in the US
during the 1970s following the Vietnam War. Since then, wheelchair athletics have continued attracting more athletes, including those born with physical disabilities.
When talking about his childhood, Abbott says he never felt defined by his physical differences and that “disabled” wasn’t part of his vocabulary. “The whole point is, if you view it as something to be inhibited by, it’s going to inhibit you,” Abbott says, “but if you view it as just normal life, that’s what it will be.” From this normal life has sprung extraordinary accomplishment. Now, as a Paralympian, Abbott emphasizes the meaningfulness of his hard work as an athlete. “The ‘Para’ in Paralympics stands for parallel, not paralyzed. It’s an elite competition,” Abbott says.
World Wheelchair Sports
Although Abbott and Dewald met in Portland, it was through their time spent in Eugene training with coach and WWS director Kevin Hansen that their relationship was strengthened. Hansen’s expert mentorship helped galvanize the pair’s momentum toward Indianapolis and London as he provided them with an opportunity to show off their talents on the track. Since 1990, Hansen has maintained a stock of state-of-the-art racing chairs he lends to teen athletes for up to four years while they train under his guidance.
Hansen, unlike Abbott and Dewald, was not born with a disability. A promising college athlete, Hansen broke his neck in a skiing accident when he was 21 years old and became paralyzed from the neck down. “After the accident, I couldn’t move anything, but I could think about moving something,” he says. Hansen had an opportunity to do more than think when he participated in a biofeedback study in Denver. He found he could measure his brain’s impulses by watching a needle move on an EMG device as he attempted to fire his muscles. With practice, he regained limited but valuable command of his arms and hands through such therapy.
Before his life-changing injury, Hansen was a downhill skiing instructor for five years. Athletics were his whole life, but after months of recovery, he felt he needed to go in another direction. Hansen says he pondered several academic careers in arts and humanities, but somehow he always came back to sports. “I never wanted to sit behind a desk,” Hansen says. “I just really enjoy being outside and teaching about [body] movement.” Committing himself to pursue wheelchair athletics, Hansen quickly became a trusted adviser to his colleagues. After training Oregon athletes for the Boston Marathon, Hansen began coaching amputee and local wheelchair track athlete Craig Blanchette, who went on to win bronze medal in a 1500-meter exhibition match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Hansen’s dedication to wheelchair athletics paid off when he was hired to coach 12 athletes on the US Paralympic Team for the 1996 Atlanta games. The team was formed mainly of adults, and the experience left Hansen wanting to help people achieve success, rather than maintain it. He began to focus on high school athletes and sponsored events through the International Paralympic Committee to get young athletes noticed by the Olympic Training Committee (OTC).
Hansen has been instrumental in supporting his athletes’ equipment needs through public relations and fundraising. Prior to the games, Hansen worked hard upgrading steel parts to aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber, in an effort to make his athletes’ racing equipment lighter and more durable. He also negotiated with Top End, a key racing chair manufacturer, to get Dewald in a new racer in time for London. The new chair weighs only 11 pounds., which is three less than its predecessor. “It doesn’t sound like much,” Dewald says, “but when you’re the one pushing it, you feel the difference.”
In 2009, Hansen helped create the Adaptive Ducks Sports Club at the University of Oregon. The organization provides opportunities for athletes to use the school’s facilities to race in International Paralympic Committee (IPC) sanctioned competitions. Hansen currently works with 15 athletes but turned his focus to Dewald as her voyage to London approached. Dewald considers Hansen’s work crucial to her success. “I’ve had an amazing support group behind me. People focus so much on the athlete, but there are so many things that go into it,” she says. “I didn’t get here by myself.”
Road to Indianapolis
Abbott couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw not only what was rumored to be the fastest wheelchair track in the country, but 1992 Barcelona gold medalist and wheelchair athletics pioneer Scot Hollonbeck racing on it. At the age of 16, after five years of junior competitions, Abbott had entered his first adult level event: the 2007 US Paralympic Championship Games in Cobb, Georgia. The experience solidified Abbott’s aspirations of making the US team for Beijing 2008. Even though he fell short at the trials, Abbott has no regrets. “I wanted to race the big boys. I wanted to give it a go and see what I could do,” he says.
Dewald has also learned to find value in the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat. For her this came when she was first noticed by the OTC in April 2011 for setting an American record in her classification during the 400-meter sprint at the Oregon Relays hosted by WWS at Hayward Field in Eugene. Her times qualified her for the US Track Nationals in Miramar, Florida, which would be her first ever Paralympic event. Dewald finished last in both races. She considered it a “humbling experience” but one that opened her eyes. “It helped me to raise my expectations for myself,” she says.
Still, Dewald managed to compete with much older and more experienced athletes and the Miramar performance earned her an OTC invitation to compete at the November 2011 Parapan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico. At Parapan, Dewald finally earned her first medal: a silver in the 100-meter event. Abbott also earned medals at the competition: a silver in the 800-meter and bronzes in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter. This was the beginning of a six-month globetrot shared by Dewald and Abbott.
Their journey began in April 2012 when the two competed in the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. In May, Dewald and Abbott raced in the Swiss Open Nationals in Switzerland and the BT World Cup in England, before returning home to gear up for Indianapolis in July and London in August and September. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet some pretty amazing athletes through what I’m doing. You’re surrounded by people with the same goals as you. It’s intoxicating,” says Dewald of her European experience, where she met three-time Paralympic gold medalist Tatyana McFadden. In Switzerland, Abbott got a huge boost of confidence when he beat a Beijing 2008 gold medalist from the US. “It was no longer them and me. I was up there with them,” he says.
Between November and April, Dewald continued to train with Hansen while hitting the books and maintaining a 3.75 GPA that gained her induction into the National Honors Society. Abbott, who studies physiology at the University of Arizona, benefits from the freedom of taking time off school to focus on track events. Though Dewald has many personal connections in Oregon, like Abbott she may seek her fortune elsewhere after she graduates high school next year. She is considering studying human physiology at the University of Illinois, the school Hansen calls the birthplace of collegiate wheelchair athletics.
Recipe for a Champion
The elite competition Dewald faced over the last year has often left her wondering if she’d make the cut. She twice attended an OTC training camp in Chula Vista, California, which she calls “boot camp,” because it was the greatest physical challenge of her life. “You do two-a-days. You go out in the morning for a three-hour session. You take a lunch break, put some more sunscreen on, and do it all over again,” Dewald says.
Most of her life revolves around an annual training calendar. In winter, Dewald plays weekend basketball and alternates between weightlifting and chair cardio during the week. The deeper into winter it gets, the heavier the weights become. Then she adds rigorous sessions on a handcycle, which has broadened her shoulders significantly. Dewald also undergoes a barrage of core work—twists, sit-ups, and crunches to ensure proper posture in her racing chair. “You need to drive your weight downward to be more forward and gain speed,” she says. By March, it’s track season again. Game on.
This year, Dewald trained with Hansen at least every other weekend in six-hour blocks. “I train on my high school track when I’m home. Being on the track is good, but if you want the endurance and strength, you’ve gotta get off the track,” says Dewald, who also enjoys tearing down unpaved trails to keep her body guessing.
Between the trials in Indianapolis and the opening of the London games in August, Dewald was in “active recovery” for the last phase of her training. This meant strictly monitoring her diet, especially with regard to carbohydrates and electrolytes that give her power on the track and protein and potassium that speed muscular recovery afterword. Abbott’s training cycle is quite similar, with the exception that he sacrificed basketball in order to pursue callisthenic and machine-based cross training at the gym.
In the odd times when Dewald is not competing or training, she takes pleasure in simply being still. “Lounging around becomes a reward,” she says. “You’re so active and so spread out. My favorite thing to do is just go to my best friend’s house in my pajamas, lie on the couch, and do nothing.” Abbott can’t quite relate. He spends most of his free time maintaining a section of the popular track website RunnerSpace.com devoted to documenting the milestones of local wheelchair athletes. “I eat, sleep, and breathe the sport of track and field,” he says. “When I have down time, I’m usually watching track videos online.”
For both athletes, the training never really ends. Ten days after Indianapolis, the two were packed and on a plane for Windsor, Canada for a five-day Paralympic training camp where they got to meet their new coaches and prepare for the London games.
Prior to London, Abbott said he had never been more ready for anything in his entire life. “It’s a childhood dream come true for me to compete in the Paralympics.” Abbott took proud comfort in the fact that a chief competitor in his class, Mickey Bushell, was British. “The crowd is just gonna go crazy for him,” Abbott said. “I’d like to make the crowd go quiet. That’s my goal.”
As two Oregon-grown athletes headed for the big show in London, Dewald and Abbott had their work cut out for them. After more than gold, these competitors set out to redefine the meaning of the word parallel.