Champion wheelchair racer Amanda McGrory tells Molly Ferns about her record-setting year and her plans for the 2012 London Paralympics.
Few people begin a career at five years old. But Amanda McGrory, 25, the women’s winner of the wheelchair circuit in the New York City Marathon, can make that very claim.
“I was five. I knew nothing, so my dad told me to go to the finish line and stop. So about a half inch before I crossed the finish line, I stopped. I just sat there. Everyone was screaming and telling me to go and cheering, but I just turned around and waved to them thinking that I had finished the race. It took a little bit of coaxing from the sidelines and I finally realized I needed to actually cross the finish line and not just go to it,” she says.
Just prior to that first ever wheelchair race, Amanda had completed rehab at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. At the young age of five, her life had changed significantly. She contracted transverse myelitis, a rare virus that affects only 1 in 6 million people. In Amanda’s case, her spinal nerve cells are still alive but fail to transfer any signals. This causes her limited feeling and muscle control below her hips, very similar to a spinal cord injury.
Having to overcome this was no easy task for a child.
“It was tough for me because I went from being a regular kid to not being able to walk. It was difficult to understand why or how that happened. It’s a little bit different if there’s an injury or something related, like you get into a car crash or you fall out a window. For me, it was like any other day but I got up and my legs just didn’t work anymore.”
Amanda’s family, whom she describes as “incredibly” supportive, found out about a camp in the Philadelphia area for kids with disabilities that “was all about learning how to do things by yourself, being independent and meeting other people.” Through this camp, Amanda was able to discover different Philadelphia sports programs, like wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing.
Fast forward twenty years later and Amanda is one of the top competitors in wheelchair marathons, which she describes as “this crazy hybrid of running, speed skating and cycling.” She is crossing finish lines and breaking records around the world. She finished this year’s New York City Marathon, held on November 6, in a course-record time of 1:50:24.
“At about four miles from the finish I looked down, because I keep a running clock with my time, speed and distance. As I was looking at it, I did some quick calculations in my head and figured out that even if I dropped off from the pace that I was holding, I’d still come in at about a minute under the current record. I couldn’t even believe it.”
And it’s not just New York. Amanda also won and broke records at this year’s Paris and London marathons.
“It’s definitely been my best year on the road so far,” she says. “I’ve never been more successful.”
Along with her three major wins, Amanda also set a new record at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, came in first in England’s Port of Tyne Tunnel 2K and came in second in Oita, Japan just a week before winning New York.
Amanda has been racing all over the world for years now but she has yet to find the time to visit Ireland – the birthplace of her paternal grandparents, who emigrated from Donegal and Kilkenny.
“I want to go so badly! Unfortunately, as an athlete you want to make sure you have time to adjust to different time zones and make sure your sleep schedule is back on track. So I generally fly in a few days before the race, and I’m pretty limited with what I can do with my time. I don’t want to do too much traveling; I don’t want to stay up too late. But I’m hoping that after the London Paralympics I can take a trip over,” says Amanda.
In anticipation of the London Paralympics (to be held in conjunction with the 2012 London Olympics), one might naturally expect Amanda to be the frontrunner on the U.S. Paralympic marathon team. Yet, like any other sport, wheelchair racing has its variable elements and challenges. This year’s Chicago Marathon played host to the 2012 London Paralympic qualifier, and was also the scene of an upset for Amanda.
“I was last year’s [Chicago Marathon] champion and I was feeling really good coming into the race. But during the warm-up, my steering cracked. I thought that maybe it would last but through all the twists and turns, I only made it to about five miles. I went to go around a turn and the whole front of the chair just came off in my hands. Unfortunately, that was the end of the race for me.”
Despite the mechanical malfunction, odds are in her favor that she will qualify for the Paralympic marathon team based on her record times. And one can still expect to see Amanda at this summer’s Paralympics, racing in the 800m and the 5000m events. As the current world champion in both events, she has high hopes of winning the gold.
Looking further into the future, Amanda “definitely” has plans for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
“I’m really fortunate thus far to make a career out of wheelchair racing, which is something I never dreamed of. I’m trying to get some sponsors right now, because I’ve been living mostly off of prize money for the past few years, which is fantastic.”
Amanda is happy to be taking advantage of her prize money earnings thus far.
“I’m a little bit of a shopaholic,” she explains. “I established a ten percent rule, where I’m allowed to spend ten percent of my prize money on anything that I want.”
Amanda’s career as a professional athlete could last a while. In wheelchair marathoning, careers can span several years. The men’s winner of the NYC Marathon, Masazumi Soejima of Japan, is 41 years old.
“Wheelchair racers peak a little bit later than able-bodied runners, because wheelchair racing just works completely different,” explains Amanda. “Most women wheelchair racers peak in their early thirties, and men a little bit closer to their mid-thirties. I could potentially stretch my career out for almost another twenty years.
There might be a point in my life where I decide that I’ve accomplished the things that I want to in racing, but at this point, at least for the next five years I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Amanda knows that although wheelchair racing is her first choice, she has many other options open to her. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she certainly has other career paths she could take.
“Potentially, I may go back to grad school after the Paralympics in London [but] if I go back, I’d go into library and information sciences.”
Amanda’s training process has definitely played a huge role in her success. After attending the University of Illinois on a wheelchair basketball scholarship, she found herself more drawn to marathons and began training with the men’s team.
“They’re some of the fastest men in the world – former world record holders and Paralympic gold medalists. So there’s always someone ahead of me, always someone faster than me to chase and I think that it’s frustrating for me at practice.”
But Amanda believes that this vigorous training program has helped her. “My biggest strength in marathoning is just being able to push longer and harder than anyone else and I think that comes from the program.”
During marathons, Amanda often finds herself competing against fellow teammate Tatyana McFadden.“She’s similar to me because she trains the same way I do. She’s a hard worker and she’s tough. In the end, it comes down to every person for themselves but I think that we’re both team players on the way up. Sometimes working together we can break away from everyone else.”
As for what’s next, Amanda says that she will be looking forward to this April’s London Marathon. She also has smaller races coming up throughout the winter, a half marathon in the Cayman Islands at the end of this month and some races in Southeast Asia. But she plans on focusing most of her training in preparation for London.
“For me, I always want to be faster and always want to be better, so if I could come back in and break the record in London again that’d be fantastic. The biggest goal right now is getting on the Paralympic team and bringing home the gold.”