Updated: Huge boost for UI wheelchair program


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CHICAGO — The University of Illinois has been designated an official U.S. Paralympic Training Site, the United States Olympic Committee announced Friday.

"We've always had the best wheelchair track program in the world ... so this validates all the training we've been doing and all the coaching that has come out of our program," said Maureen Gilbert, coordinator of UI's wheelchair athletics program.

The 2,100-square-foot training site on campus includes specialized equipment such as roller stations and weights for the university's wheelchair athletes. The space was recently renovated and thanks to a donation from BP, will be receiving additional training equipment. The company donated $160,000.

"We're working on now moving forward with continuing to make the site a the state-of-the art facility that the U.S. Paralympics wants it to be," Gilbert said. The new equipment will provide feedback to the athletes and coaches about power output, strokes, speed, distance, she said.

The Illinois wheelchair track & field program is led by Adam Bleakney, the U.S. Olympic Committee 2013 Paralympic National Coach of the Year award recipient. Bleakney is a Paralympic silver medalist and a four-time U.S. Paralympian.

The program has produced a number of Paralympians, including Tatyana McFadden, Jean Driscoll, Sharon Hedrick, Shawn Meredith and more. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, athletes from the UI's wheelchair track & field program accounted for 10 out of the total 28 U.S. track & field medals won, including three gold medals and one bronze from McFadden and four gold medals won by UI junior Raymond Martin.

"We are pleased to support the University of Illinois and its dynamic wheelchair program in a more formal manner," said Cathy Sellers, U.S. Paralympics track & field high performance director in a release. "The program has produced many Paralympic athletes who've reached the podium; we look forward to its continued success."

The announcement was made at the conclusion of a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Chicago.

"It was a very meaningful occasion because they acknowledged the historic leadership the University of Illinois has played in the Paralympic movement. It's a real honor," said Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences. She was joined by Bleakney, McFadden, UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Tim Nugent, founder of the UI's Disability Resources and Educational Services, and other officials.

The training center renovation is largely completed but part of BP's donation will provide scholarships for athletes to come and train at the university, Gallagher said.

The UI, the College of Applied Health Sciences, which oversees all the services with students for disabilities, and BP "are ensuring tremendous opportunities for years to come," said wheelchair athlete Jean Driscoll, now senior director of development for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

"The investment is important to the growth of Illinois athletes and the ongoing access to participate in sport competitively," she said. Not a lot of disabled students in high school or college have that access, she said.

The UI is a special place, she said. "We are grateful from 1948 to today, from Tim (Nugent) to Tonya (Gallagher)," Driscoll said.

There are 22 athletes currently training at the Champaign site; 12 of the 22 are U.S. Paralympians, six are Paralympic medalists and four are gold medalists. Collectively the 22 athletes hold four world records, and three have been nominated for ESPY awards and have won the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City marathons.

"Since athletes from our program at Illinois participated in the first Paralympic Games we have had a sustained commitment to the world-wide recognition and celebration of athletic ability that these games represent. We are honored to have been selected as a training site and for the support we received from BP," Gallagher said.

Fifty-nine Paralympic medals have gone to UI athletes, she said.

"That's quite a record of achievement."

The Summer Olympics will be held in August 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Paralympics will be there from September 7 to 18, 2016.

"As a proud partner of the United States Olympic Committee, BP is honored to support the establishment of what we believe will be the top Paralympic wheelchair racing training facility in the world," said Corey Correnti, BP's Chicago-based vice president of marketing, sales and supply in a release. "We're very excited to lend our support to this world-class wheelchair racing program at the University of Illinois."