Forber-Pratt's passion has taken her all the way to London
SAVOY — Take it from Anjali Forber-Pratt. You can't exaggerate the impact of the Boston Marathon on the capital of Massachusetts. Or the entire region, for that matter.
"Growing up there, the whole state shuts down for Marathon Monday," the University of Illinois three-degree graduate said.
As someone who's been bound to a wheelchair for virtually all of her 28 years, Forber-Pratt can attest to the impact of the Boston Marathon on a profoundly personal level, too.
It was through watching world-class wheelchair racers compete in the most famous of marathons that Forber-Pratt was inspired to consider what was attainable, even to someone with her physical limitations.
"It was truly an eye-opening experience for me," said Forber-Pratt, who was 5 when she saw her first Boston Marathon. "I didn't realize the possibilities, that there was this whole world out there that I didn't know existed."
Seizing on those possibilities, Forber-Pratt developed into one of the top wheelchair track sprinters in the world. In 2008, she won two bronze medals at the Paralympics. She was a gold medalist at the 2011 International Paralympic Committee World Championships. Until June, she held the world record in the 200 meters. And even though distance events are not her forte, the Natick, Mass., native placed fourth in the women's wheelchair division in her Boston Marathon debut in 2011.
And now, Forber-Pratt is headed to London for her second Paralympics.
"She definitely has the potential to get three medals," said UI wheelchair track coach and fellow 2012 Paralympian Adam Bleakney.
Forber-Pratt's journey to coveted medallions and world records started a world away from Massachusetts. Born in Kolkata, India, she was quickly placed in an orphanage.
Then, almost as quickly, she found herself in a loving home. A Boston area couple, Rosalind Forber and Larry Pratt, had previously adopted her older brother. They would do the same for Forber-Pratt when she was 2 1/2 months old.
Then, her circumstance took a cruel turn. Shortly after arriving in the United States, she was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Transverse myelitis left her paralyzed from the waist down.
She would never walk on her own.
But then, neither could those disabled athletes she later would see — and admire — at the Boston Marathon. They inspired Forber-Pratt to get involved in sports, even downhill skiing. While still in high school, she competed for a spot on the U.S. Winter Paralympics team.
"My parents did not raise me any differently despite my disability," she said. "They fostered a strong sense of independence and encouraged all of us (children) to chase our dreams."
When it came time to choose a college, Forber-Pratt already was well aware of the UI through the likes of Jean Driscoll — an eight-time Boston Marathon wheelchair champion — and others with past and present Illini ties who excelled in the sport.
"(The school) was always in the back of my mind," she said.
With its Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, Forber-Pratt was well aware, too, of the UI's reputation as a welcoming place for disabled students. In the fall of 2002, she headed to Champaign-Urbana.
From slopes to spokes
Downhill skiing remained Forber-Pratt's sport of choice. It didn't take long, however, for the New Englander to realize that the terrain of central Illinois bears little resemblance to back East, "where we actually have mountains."
For a time, Forber-Pratt tried to keep her hand in the sport by flying to ski events on weekends. Eventually, however, she decided to skip the slopes and focus on her studies as an undergraduate.
It was during this time that Forber-Pratt made a tentative connection to Bleakney's program, occasionally working out with UI wheelchair track athletes to keep in shape. That connection became permanent when she entered graduate school. Uncertain that her initial postgraduate path was the right one, a stressed-out Forber-Pratt was drawn back to competitive athletics late in 2006.
"I wasn't feeling happy about what I was doing and I needed some time to figure it out," she said. "Sports was always something that was fundamental in my life, and I realized I missed the competition."
This time, the flatlands of the Midwest suited Forber-Pratt's needs just fine. With an impressive resume in track — she had won 12 medals in four Junior National Wheelchair Games — Forber-Pratt went from periodic work-out partner to full-fledged UI team member.
With Bleakney's help, the petite racer also adjusted to a suitable wheel size for her arm length.
"She was just getting dwarfed by the large wheel," the UI coach said. "One of the big keys to getting the wheel to move (fast) is being able to get the hand ring all the way to the bottom. Once we addressed that (with a smaller wheel), she improved very quickly. Since then, she's been going strong."
Wasting no time
How strong? Within six months of joining the Illini team, Forber-Pratt not only was competing for the U.S. National Team in the 2007 Parapan Games in Rio de Janeiro, but winning two gold medals and a bronze.
She's since become a medal-winning fixture in international wheelchair track, earning those bronzes at the last Paralympics, striking world gold, and in 2011 pushing to the fastest 200-meter time ever, 29.16 seconds, during a meet in Switzerland — a mark that stood until Illini teammate Jessica Galli broke it at the U.S. Paralympic Trials this summer.
Now, Forber-Pratt is bound for London to compete in her second Paralympics with a clear-headed sense of what's ahead.
"The first experience, I was kind of in a daze," she said. "It's a childhood dream come true and I was like 'Gosh, am I really here?' (This time) I'm expecting to be more involved with the experience itself and not in a cloudy daze.
"And having had two bronze medals, I'm looking to trade those up for maybe some gold."
Forber-Pratt will have multiple opportunities, having qualified in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. She might also be tabbed by the Team USA coaching staff for a relay or two.
Away from the track, Forber-Pratt has been busy beefing up her academic credentials. Last spring, she earned a Ph.D. in human resource education.
Others in her situation might view London as one final run at gold. One last bow before entering the workforce. But wheelchair racing clearly has a strong hold on Forber-Pratt. Perhaps even strong enough to drive her toward taking a shot at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.
"I haven't made any decision one way or another," she said. "My sole focus now is on London and performing the best I can there.
"I will need to eventually find a job, but I don't know yet. I'm certainly not ruling Rio (de Janeiro) off the table."