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CHAMPAIGN — Little did Jenna Fesemyer know what was in store for her when she reached the finish line of last month’s Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota.

Not only was the recent UI grad’s time of 1 hour, 36 minutes a new personal best, but she also learned soon after that it was two minutes better than the time she needed to qualify for the 2019 U.S. Paralympic National Team.

Make the squad again next year, and she’ll be headed to the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.


UI student Jenna Fesemyer has qualified to become a member of the 2019 US Paralympic team. She was at the UI track in Urbana on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

“It was a complete surprise to me, and overall it is such a gift to see my hard work pay off,” Fesemyer said.

For the incoming UI grad student and native of Ravenna, Ohio, the performance was the realization of a six-year dream — and one she immediately filled mom and dad in on.

“My parents have supported my journey for so long,” she said. “I am so thankful to my parents, as they have sacrificed so much for me to get to the level that I am at now.”

Fesemyer first began to take wheelchair racing seriously as a high school sophomore. That’s when the Ohio High School Athletics Association added 100-, 400- and 800-meter wheelchair events to state track meet competitions.

Fesemyer ended her high school athletic career with four state records and 12 gold medals, the latter tying the all-time record by an Ohio prep athlete.

When she started her college career at the UI, it became more challenging to juggle training, school work and a social life, but she eventually figured it out.

“Between training and travel, the past four years have been a balancing act,” she said. “Luckily at the UI, the staff is pretty flexible and accommodating, as we have a legacy of wheelchair athletes who have performed at a high level while going to school full-time.”

For Fesemyer, patience was the key.

“I had to make a conscious decision every day to give my best to my commitment of not only training as a full-time athlete, but also to my life as a student,” she said. “I have had many conversations over coffee with my coach, as he reminded me to be patient. It’s safe to say we’ve had a lot of coffee.”

A typical day of training for Fesemyer includes a morning session on a track or road and an afternoon session with time in the weight room and, on occasion, swimming and yoga.

During high-volume weeks, Fesemyer sometimes clocks in more than 100 miles.

There have been setbacks along the way. Last spring, Fesemyer had developed radial tunnel syndrome, which made her lose feeling in her hands and struggle with grip strength.

She worried about her athletic future but last month’s race along Lake Superior proved she’s back on track.

“Looking ahead,” she said, “I am excited to use this monumental moment for me as a motivator leading into the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.”

Fesemyer remains grateful for all the support she’s received — from family, friends, coaches and the community at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, where she is a hall director.

“It takes a village to get to this point,” she said. “This journey isn’t an easy or linear one, so I am very thankful for the support that I have.”