The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
The Paralympic dream started in London, but has been sustained much in part to the efforts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Many of Illinois’ finest athletes, along with Paralympians from around the nation, gathered at the College of San Mateo over the weekend to compete in U.S. Paralympic Championship Track & Field Meet.
The three-day event held Friday through Sunday at CSM’s breathtaking mondo track marked the first time the event has ever been hosted in California.
Five-time Summer Paralympic Games medalist Josh George was one of the many former Fighting Illini to compete at the National Championship. And there is good reason why his alma mater was so well represented.
“A majority of wheelchair racers are from [Illinois],” said George, a world-class wheelchair sprinter. “We’re sort of a Mecca of wheelchair racing.”
George is a graduate of Illinois and trained there in preparation for his appearances in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in ’08. Eleven-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden recently graduated from the college as well.
In addition to being Illinois’ first university, Illinois was the first in U.S. history to retrofit its campus to be wheelchair accessible. At the same time Paralympic founder Ludwig Guttmann started the first games for disabled persons with the International Stoke Mandeville Games in London in 1948, athletics pioneer Tim Nuggent started the first collegiate wheelchair basketball team at Illinois.
“Originally, the idea was to allow wounded vets returning from World War II to take advantage of the G. I. bill; because you had thousands upon thousands of young men who were suddenly in wheelchairs,” George said.
The campus would swiftly grow into the archetype for the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law some 40 years later by President George H.W. Bush.
“There was no accessibility,” George said. “So, they created their own thing. They created curb cuts, and street corners, and ramps going into buildings. They built their own ramps. A lot of what they did … went into the [ADA].”
George was one of the many Illinois athletes to shine in the national championship event over the weekend at CSM. He reached the podium in four events, capturing three gold medals and one silver.
Paralympic events are highly specialized according to severity of disability. George is a wheelchair racer, for which there are four classifications in track events numbered T51-54. The lower the number, the more sever the disability. Classifications are determined by a medical review board with athletes being grouped with those of like disabilities. A given athlete only competes with those in one’s own classification.
George competes in the men’s T53 class and captured gold medals in the 100-meter dash with a time of 15.69 seconds; the 1,500 in 3 minutes, 14.46 seconds; and the 5,000 in 11:20.11. He also captured silver in the 400 with a 51.90, finishing behind gold medalist Brian Siemann — one of George’s training partners at Illinois — with a 51.34.
McFadden is also a wheelchair racer. Competing in the women’s T54 class, she earned five gold medals over the weekend, winning the 100 in 16.95; the 400 in 57.45; the 800 in 1:51.73; the 1,500 in 3:40.34; and the 5,000 in 11:57.78.
A fulltime athlete, McFadden was born in Russia but grew up in Clarksville, Maryland. It was there she met George at the age of 7, when the two started competing together as part of the Bennett Blazers athletic club in Baltimore. McFadden began training at Illinois in 2004 when she was 15, the same year she won her first Paralympic medal by capturing bronze in the 200-meter – T54 at the Athens Games.
“That’s just where I wanted to go to college,” McFadden said. “The coaches are absolutely fabulous. It’s the most wheelchair accessible campus in the United States and now it’s the National Wheelchair Training Center for the [United States Olympic Committee].”
There are many other training facilities for Paralympic athletes though. One of the most prominent field competitors in the world, Lex Gillette, took gold in the men’s long jump – T11 class with his best jump at 6.40 meters. Winning gold was hardly remarkable for the event’s reigning world champion as he was the only participant in the event Saturday at CSM.
What is remarkable, in regards to the T11 classification, is it means Gillette — a native of Raleigh, North Carolina who trains in Chula Vista — is completely blind.
Growing up in Raleigh, Gillette enjoyed sports like baseball and football prior to losing his sight. But recurrent retina detachments caused his vision to deteriorate. He has undergone 13 surgeries to reattach his retinas, but each after the other they failed exponentially.
During this time, Gillette was introduced to long jumping by Brian Whitmer, his teacher in the visually-impaired class at his grade school. Whitmer affixed a longer platform off which to jump and stood in front of the landing pit. By clapping, he allowed for Gillette to hone in on the location, only to move at the moment Gillette hit the platform to allow a straight trajectory for the pit.
“[Whitmer] would stand at the board and clap for me giving me an audible sound as to where I need to run,” Gillette said. “It’s my responsibility to remember how many steps I took, make sure I run at his voice, run as hard as I can and do the best I can do.”
The best Gillette has done to date is being recognized as the best in the world in his discipline, as he captured his first and only international gold medal at last year’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France. In 2011, he set the world record in the event with a jump of 6.73.
Currently working with audio guide Wesley Williams — who Gillette refers to as his air-traffic controller — Gillette is preparing for the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016. A three-time Paralympian, he has captured three consecutive silver medals.
“I’m a three-time silver medalist, so I’m looking forward to getting on top in 2016,” Gillette said. “I won World Championships last year. That was a big step.”
A trio of Bay Area athletes competed at CSM over the weekend as well. Ranjit Steiner — a Palo Alto resident and product of Gunn High School — captured his first medal ever at a national event, taking bronze in the 200-meter – T42, the classification for single-leg amputees. Steiner’s third-place time was 32.01, finishing behind gold medalist William Woods Sr. (27.73) and silver medalist Kyle Dalley (31.47). Steiner also took sixth place in the 100 with a time of 15.00.
Steven Toyoji of San Francisco took fourth place in the 100-meter – T52 with a time of 20.83. Gold in the event was won by Raymond Martin (18.70), who trains at Illinois. Toyoji later took fifth in the 800 with a 2:10.59. Siemann (1:46.36) took gold in the event.
Redwood City’s Nicholas Smith competed in the men’s discus throw – F52-57. Of seven competitors, Smith was the only one from the F52 class, the most sever class of arm and/or leg limitations. He finished in seventh place with a throw of 9.27 meters. Michael Wishnia, an F57 class thrower from San Clemente, took gold with a 36.96.