Illini wheelchair track team members break world records, travel around globe



By Josh Birnbaum

Switzerland, Japan, Brazil, New York – these are just a few of the places the Illinois wheelchair track team will travel to compete this season.

Because it isn’t a collegiate sport, they practice as a team but compete individually in track events and marathons all over the world.

“We almost operate as semi-professionals because we don’t have collegiate programs to compete against,” head coach Adam Bleakney said. “We’re competing on a professional circuit.”

The team started its nearly year-long season strong when athletes Amanda McGrory and Jessica Galli placed first and second, respectively, in the half-marathon in Atlanta, Ga., last weekend.

“The course was a lot harder than we had expected,” McGrory said. “The whole race was up and down and constant hills.”

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This finish will lead the team into the spring/summer season, which will be a mix of track meets and marathons. The team’s next race is the Boston Marathon on April 16.

McGrory, who won the New York City Marathon last November, said she hopes to finish in the top three at Boston in addition to setting the world record for the 800-meter race later in the season.

“Over the past couple of years,” McGrory said, “I’ve really made the transition from being a racer who’s on the cusp of being elite to (being) an elite racer, which is really exciting for me. And that opens up so many more doors for international competition.”

Galli said she also looks forward to this season because of the composition of the team – it will have a total of 12 track athletes.

“I’m kind of excited just because our team has grown,” Galli said. “It’s really helpful to have people to motivate you and have people to train with.”

To prepare for the many races ahead of it, the team practices Monday through Saturday, averaging 100-120 miles every week, said coach Bleakney, who trains and competes with his athletes.

Senior Josh George, who won the Chicago Marathon last October, said that his goals for the season centers around speed.

“Last summer I broke the world record for the 400-meter race,” George said. “Three months after I broke the record it was broken again by one of my competitors, so if at all possible I would like to try to get that world record back.”

Despite training and competing all year, it never gets old for George.

“You’re constantly traveling to different places and you’re constantly training and focusing on different events,” George said. “It is really one big, long season, but it doesn’t feel like it.”