Illinois Paralympians eager for London experience
CHAMPAIGN — It's the first thing to cross Aaron Pike's mind when he awakes and his last thought before nodding off to sleep each night.
Pretty much every hour in between, too.
Being a first-time qualifier for the Paralympic Games will do that to an athlete.
"You're thinking about it all the time," the 2011 University of Illinois graduate said this week. "I couldn't be more excited."
When Pike represents the United States in wheelchair track and field at the Paralympics, which begin in late August, the Park Rapids, Minn., native won't lack for familiar faces in London. In his sport alone, a total of 13 former, current and future Illini — most of them now training in Champaign-Urbana — are members of the U.S. team.
Unlike the 26-year-old Pike, some in this group are veterans of the five-rings journey.
Adam Bleakney, the coach of the UI wheelchair track program since 2005 and a former Illini athlete, will compete in his fourth Paralympics. So will Jessica Galli, a five-time medalist at the 2008 Games. Joshua George, a gold medalist four years ago, is headed to his third Paralympics. Amanda McGrory and Anjali Forber-Pratt, who combined for six medals in 2008, are repeat Paralympians.
But this is uncharted territory for the likes of Pike, fellow UI graduate Ryan Chalmers and Illini junior-to-be Susannah Scaroni. And although it's been about two weeks since each was selected to the U.S. team for London following the Paralympics Trials in Indianapolis, there's still a pinch-me aspect to the whole thing.
"I can't really believe it's real," Scaroni said. "It's almost beyond imagination."
Ditto for Chalmers.
"I really haven't been able to comprehend the whole thing yet that I'm actually going to the Paralympics," he said. "This started when I was 8 years old; I had that dream. As a little kid, you want to be an elite athlete and you want to get to the Paralympics. And now it's here."
Bleakney knows the feeling. Before making his Games debut in Sydney in 2000, he, too, experienced all the excitement, anticipation, curiosity and apprehension that goes with being a first-time Paralympian.
"It's something I will never forget, so it really is rewarding for me to see these first-time athletes to qualify for the Paralympics. It's equally rewarding for the veterans when they make it, but there's something special about the first time. Just the magnitude of the event and the anticipation of being in it is quite special."
From Bleakney's experience, the biggest challenge first-timers face won't necessarily be on the track but instead takes place during the hour or so before any of their races.
After warming up, all athletes in the upcoming event enter a waiting room and remain there for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour before moving out to the stadium track. It's a logistical measure to keep the meet on schedule, but it can be nerve-racking, Bleakney says.
"Essentially, they sit, do very little to nothing in terms of staying warm and pushing," he said. "Your body cools down, but at the same time, I think what's more stressful is ... just dealing with that time and that pressure.
"You're stuck in one spot with your competitor that you've visualized beating and competing against, so the pressure of the situation is magnified. And, you can't even move around to let go of some of that nervous energy. So keeping your focus in that hour is a big challenge."
First-time Paralympians will learn that other athletes deal with that challenge in different ways.
"Some athletes like to talk while they're in the call room," Bleakney said. "Other people really like to have quiet, so there's a variety of distractions (first-timers) need to deal with.
"Just to deal with all of these elements that will be competing for their attention and still being able to stay focused on the competition is really key."
In practices, the UI coach tries to simulate the prerace conditions. No, Bleakney doesn't herd his racers into a cramped room with four walls and one door, but he does incorporate the waiting game his Paralympians will face in London into workouts.
This particular routine typically consists of a workout on the track at full-out pace, followed by a 10- to 20-minute break in which the Illini do nothing but wait in their chairs.
"I get them in that situation where they have to sit," Bleakney said, "and then we go again."
The first-time Paralympians also can call upon the experiences and advice of their Games-tested teammates. Scaroni, Chalmers and Pike say they've been asking plenty of questions and following the leads of the veterans as they prepare for London.
"I'm super blessed to be surrounded by two-, three-time Paralympians," Scaroni, a 21-year-old from Tekoa, Wash., said. "And so I have been asking them what village life is like. Our uniforms arrived in the mail this week, and so just like talking to them about going through what we need to do with those, when will we be using those, because it's all like dropped on you instantly. .... It was nice to have their reassurance on taking everything in."
Chalmers has tapped into advice on how to handle the mental preparation for performing on the world's biggest stage in their sport.
"The thing I've talked to them about is that whole mental part of being an elite athlete," the 23-year-old said. "The physical part will come though Adam, our coach, but that mental part — knowing that you are an elite athlete now and you are as good as everyone else. ... Not getting too nervous, that's half the battle."
Of course, the physical preparation can't be discounted, and Chalmers is thankful he's in a training environment that includes some of the world's best wheelchair racers.
"Josh George is a medalist in the Paralympics, and we're chasing him every single day," the Churchville, N.Y., native said. "And chasing Adam, so I get to push with these phenomenal athletes every single day, and it's a competitive advantage."
Now, if only time would move a little quicker for these eager Paralympian rookies.
"I always get the prerace nerves when I'm about to do some race," Scaroni said, "and I've been getting those almost every day just thinking about this."
Wheelchair track and field athletes with University of Illinois connections who will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games Aug. 29-Sept. 9 in London:
NAME CURRENT RESIDENCE HOMETOWN COMMENT
Adam Bleakney Savoy Mason City, Iowa UI coach was 800-meter silver medalist at 2004 Paralympics
Ryan Chalmers Champaign Churchville, N.Y. Currently ranked second in U.S. in 800 meters
Anjali Forber-Pratt Savoy Natick, Mass. Won two bronze medals at 2008 Beijing Paralympics
Jessica Galli Savoy Hillsborough, N.J. Five medals at 2008 Paralympics, most by a U.S. track athlete
Joshua George Champaign Fairfax, Va. Current American record-holder in 800 and 1,500 meters
Raymond Martin Jersey City, N.J. Jersey City, N.J. Swept 200 (world record), 400 and 800 meters at U.S. Trials
Amanda McGrory Savoy Kennett Square, Pa. Four-time 2008 Paralympics medalist has won New York, London, Paris marathons
Aaron Pike Champaign Park Rapids, Minn. Currently ranked fourth in world in marathon
Tatyana McFadden Champaign Clarksville, Md. Three-time world champ won four medals at 2008 Paralympics
Susannah Scaroni Champaign Tekoa, Wash. Finished fifth in Boston Marathon debut in 2012
Christina (Ripp) Schwab Lakewood, Colo. Dane, Wis. Former world champion in 5,000 meters
Brian Siemann Savoy Milestone, N.J. Current top-ranked American in 100 and 200 meters
Amberlynn Weber Liberty, Wash. Liberty, Wash. Finished in top six in three races at U.S. Trials
And there’s more ...
Other local or University of Illinois Paralympians:
U.S. SITTING VOLLEYBALL
NAME HOMETOWN COMMENT
Nichole Millage Champaign Member of U.S. team that won silver medal at 2008 Paralympics
Kari Miller Washington, D.C. Another veteran of Americans’ medal-winning team in Beijing
NAME HOMETOWN COUNTRY
Dylan Alcott Highett, Australia Australia
Patrick Anderson Fergus, Ontario Canada
Sarah Castle Lee’s Summit, Mo. United States
Shelley Chaplin Camberwell, Australia Australia
Jennifer Chew Littleton, Colo. United States
Tracey Ferguson Richmond Hill, Ontario Canada
Helen Freeman Watford, England Great Britain
Bridie Kean Brisbane, Australia Australia
Hiroaki Kozai Chiba, Japan Japan
Adam Lancia Toronto Canada
Grant Mizens Sydney Australia
Edina Mueller Cologne, Germany Germany
Steve Serio Long Island, N.Y. United States
Brandon Wagner Burlington, Ontario Canada
Will Waller Hudson, Ohio United States