Illini athlete wins Paralympian of year

By Josh Birnbaum

Earlier this month Illinois wheelchair track athlete Jessica Galli was named by the United States Olympic Committee as the 2007 Paralympian of the Year.

“I can’t believe I was chosen,” Galli said. “Even though I had such a great year, to be honored like this really means something and it gives me the confidence that I really needed.”

Galli’s coach and fellow Paralympian Adam Bleakney credits the award to her outstanding accomplishments in the past year.

“It wasn’t surprising because she had such a great year,” Bleakney said. “She was in Switzerland and she set a world record and came back … and broke that record and set two more in one weekend.”

Galli holds the world records of 29.51 seconds for the 200 meter, 55.42 seconds for the 400 meter, and 1:49.82 for the 800 meter.

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In addition, she performed well at other events in the year. At the Visa Paralympic Cup in Manchester, Great Britain, she won all her events.

Bleakney said every Paralympic sport can nominate one outstanding athlete, and the USOC chooses one from that pool. Additionally, the USOC awarded SportsMan to track and field athlete Tyson Gay, SportsWoman to swimmer Katie Hoff, and Team of the Year to the U.S. Women’s World Championships Gymnastics Team.

Galli, a graduate student in community health, is the first Illini to win the award. She will be preparing for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing this fall.

“It would be great to break more world records, but that was never my intention this year,” Galli said. “I do hope to win medals.”

Galli earned a silver medal in the 2000 Sydney games, but failed to do so in the 2004 Athens games.

She will be training here at the University with Bleakney and fellow teammates Amanda McGrory and Anjali Forber-Pratt.

“I’m lucky to be training here with Anjali and Amanda,” Galli said. “They know how they’re doing and they know how I’m doing so we get to push each other … I don’t know any other place in the country where this many athletes are training together in Paralympic track.”

Galli hopes to do well in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1500-meter events, and Bleakney is set to help her achieve these goals.

“I’m training her toward the 800-meter race,” Bleakney said. “Creating a training strategy that gears an athlete toward an 800 has a lot of carryover for other events.”

Galli credits her success this year to all the people in her life: her parents, the track team, and Coach Bleakney as well.

“He’s a great coach,” Galli said. “He doesn’t take the credit he deserves.”

Overall, Bleakney is proud of Galli’s strides and the team’s success in the past year.

“It was rewarding to see her get recognized,” Bleakney said. “I’m hoping we get another one next year – her or someone else.”