UI athletes finish first in marathon

Beck Diefenbach The Daily Illini

By Brian Atlas

It all changed that fateful day when he was 4 years old. The setting: his parents’ apartment complex in northern Virginia.

He was supposed to be taking a nap – but he wasn’t. His parents were in the kitchen feeding his 1-year-old brother when it happened.

He wanted something on the shelf of his bookcase. He climbed up on his bed so he could get to the windowsill, intending to shuffle to the other side of his room to climb onto the bookcase. Partially across the window frame, he leaned backwards against the screen.

Under the weight of his body, the screen popped out.

Josh George fell approximately 120 feet from 12 stories up. He dislocated his hips, suffered spinal cord injuries, broke several ribs, shattered both femurs and punctured a lung.

But he survived.

George has been in a wheelchair ever since. About 18 years later, on Oct. 22, George, a senior in Communications, won the men’s wheelchair division of the Chicago Marathon in 1:38:31. He has won the event two previous times, in 2003 and 2004. This time, in George’s eyes, the victory had significance.

“This one was huge because there were three of the top marathoners in the world at this race,” George said. “They usually finish first or second in every marathon they run, no matter what the field is.”

George is referring to professional wheelchair racing athletes Krige Schabort, 43, and Saul Mendoza, 39, from South Africa and from Mexico, respectively. Both actually live in the U.S. now. George admits that there was some surprise.

“I was in shock actually because I did not go into that race planning on winning it,” George said. “I’m usually a realist when I go into my race. These guys are world-renowned marathoners in wheelchair racing, so to beat them was kind of cool.”

George had to train for the marathon even when wheelchair basketball practice began in early October. George practiced basketball with the Illini from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., then had to attend classes. After his classes, he would train for 15-24 miles. In September, before collegiate basketball practice started, George often “pushed” twice a day.

Growing up in a wheelchair

George never forgets how things started and what he had to do in order to get to where he is. It started with his parents.

“My parents were amazing in the sense that they just continued treating me like they would have treated me whether I was in a wheelchair or not,” George said. “So at around 5 or 6, when most kids start peewee sports, my parents started looking around the area for wheelchair sports programs to get me involved in.”

When George was about 8 years old, he started going to a program that his parents found in Baltimore, Md., which was more than a one-hour drive away from where they lived. It was called the Bennett Institute, where George participated in track, swimming, table tennis, archery, football, basketball and more. He experimented with everything but started to figure out what one of his main interests was.

“As you get older, you either decide that you like what you’re doing and you stick with it, or you move on to other stuff,” George said. “I happened to like basketball and racing and got progressively better and better at (those sports).”

George took basketball more seriously during high school. When he was a junior, he was asked by a friend, Jeremy Campbell, to play on a junior division basketball team out of Birmingham, Ala., called the Lakeshore Lakers.

“I met (Cambell) my freshman year of high school, and we actually went to Australia together,” George said. “I went (to Australia) to race and swim.”

Campbell knew how talented George was and how much help he’d provide for the Lakers.

Because the Lakeshore team was sanctioned, George opted to leave the Bennett team. Sanctioned teams have a chance to compete in the national tournament at the end of the year. The Lakers won a national championship the first year George was on the roster.

In order for George to practice and play with the team, he had to sacrifice an enormous amount of time, especially because he was traveling from the D.C. area.

“It was a crazy schedule, especially for a high school kid,” George said.

George would have to fly down to Birmingham for training camps and also meet the team wherever the tournaments were held. George increasingly began to gain recognition as a wheelchair basketball athlete.

“I was recruited through that Lakeshore team,” George said. “The coach of the basketball team there had seen me play in some summer camps and national competitions.”

George was one of the youngest members of the Junior U.S. National basketball team.

“I was 17 on the under 23 team,” George said. “We had two 17-year-olds and one who was 16, and everyone else was in college. So it was kind of cool to be one of three high schoolers.”

In 2001 that team competed in the world championships in Brazil and took home the bronze medal. The junior team also competed in 2005 in England, where it won the world championship.

“It was a little redemption from Brazil,” George said.

On the 2005 junior team, George was a co-captain and played the second-most minutes on the team. He was named to the all-tournament team.

He continued to progress and made it to the U.S. men’s Senior National Team, the highest level there is for wheelchair basketball in the U.S. In the 2005 world championships, the senior team competed in Amsterdam, earning a silver metal, having lost to Canada in the gold metal match.

George led the Americans in minutes played and started for the senior team.

Aside from playing world basketball, Illinois basketball (the U of I team has gotten third place nationally three times in George’s tenure) and being a full-time student, George also competed in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, where he raced in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meter dashes. He also holds a world record in the 400 meter for his racing division, with a time of 49.95 seconds.

“Racing is all about getting your body into the best shape possible,” George said. “The training is more painful than for basketball.”

A pair of marathon winners

Also competing in the marathon was Illinois graduate student Miriam Ladner. She was the only female to race in the women’s wheelchair division of the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 22, finishing it in 2:04:31. It officially counts as a victory. She has raced in marathons against competition before, though, having won the Chicago Marathon in 1999.

“That was a confidence booster for the rest of my career,” Ladner said. “It’s not a question of finishing. We don’t race to finish. We race to win.”

Ladner, who competed in the Paralympics in basketball in 2000 and racing in 2004, has a similar story of how she ended up in a wheelchair and the obstacles that she had to overcome.

As an 11-year-old in Utah, when Ladner could fully walk, she and a couple of others were in foothills. Ladner was tunneling into the side of a hill, scooping out a cave. The top collapsed, burying her waste deep, and Ladner broke her back. She stayed conscious the whole time.

“I didn’t understand why I couldn’t feel my legs,” Ladner said.

“At first (my friends) didn’t know how to treat me,” she said. “They weren’t sure if they could joke about it. It was like walking on eggshells. They got used to it and were fine.”

Ladner, like George, used what happened to her and turned it into something positive. And Ladner, again like George, played basketball for Illinois under head coach Mike Frogley, who has helped George with the mental aspects of athletics.

“Frogley is an inspirational guy,” George said.

Frogley said he isn’t surprised at the success of both George and Ladner, claiming “they both have the ability to persevere so they can achieve their goals.”

While at Illinois, George and Ladner got started with marathons because they were approached by former trainer Marty Morse and asked to run marathons.

Both were new to it. They weren’t considered good at first, but George and Ladner both liked the challenge.

“I love the long solitary pushes for training,” Ladner said. “It’s a challenge to try and be successful at something that doesn’t come as naturally as it does for others.”

Ultimately, most would not view being stuck in a sand cave or falling from 120 feet as positive. George and Ladner turned negatives into positives. George continued his academic success, as he is a senior in communications. He had an internship with “Around the Horn” in the D.C. area.

“It was probably the coolest job ever,” George said.

George wrote some voiceovers that were used on national television for the acclaimed show. George also wrote a sports column for the Daily Illini in 2005. As for Ladner, 28, she is an instructor at Parkland College for English as a Second Language.

Ladner said if she wouldn’t have become wheelchair bound, she never would have met her husband at Illinois, who is a graduate student in environmental engineering.

George continues to love life. He has “Pulp Fiction” and “Fight Club” posters in his apartment, along with Samsung mini-speakers, a black leather couch, a red Dirt Devil and of course poker chips and decks of cards.

“I’m livin’ the dream, having a blast,” George said.

Still, knowing that he has no conscious function below his chest, does George regret what happened to him when he was a 4-year-old?

“No,” George said. “I’m 22 years old, and I’ve been to I don’t know how many countries. You can use that problem as an excuse for not doing something in the future, or you can use that as an opportunity, as a springboard, to better yourself for the future and to become stronger as a person.

“Even if I could go back to that point in time before I fell out of the window and not get up on that windowsill, I wouldn’t change a thing,” George said.