Illini Paralympians prepare for beginning of 2012 Games

After the 2012 Summer Olympics came to an end Aug. 12, the four-year wait for the next Olympics quickly began.

The U.S. edged out China in the medal count, winning 104 medals, compared to China’s 88. The 2012 Games saw the likes of gymnast Gabby Douglas and swimmers Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin become household names. Beginning Wednesday, names such as Tatyana McFadden and Josh George will begin to sound more familiar.

Although the Olympics have been over for two weeks now, a new batch of world-class athletes intend to make their mark at the Paralympics Games.

Out of the 29 former and current Illini participants, McFadden may be entering with the highest expectations.

Although she has never won gold, she enters these Paralympics ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter dash, the 400, 800 and the 1,500. She will be representing for the U.S. in those events, as well as the marathon. McFadden, 23, won three silver medals and one bronze at the 2008 Games.

McFadden is not the only Illini expecting big things heading into these Games.

Amanda McGrory can only hope to duplicate her debut at the Paralympic Games in 2008. She received a medal in four out of five of her events and won gold in the 5,000. McGrory will be competing in five events, including the 800, 1,500, 5,000 and the marathon. She plans to benefit from an intense training regimen in Champaign this summer.

“We’ve been training six days a week at the University of Illinois, twice a day, doing about 160 miles a week.” McGrory said. “The training has varied a little bit (from 2008). Last games, I came in focusing on the 1,500 and the 5,000. I’m focusing this time on the 5,000 and the marathon, so a little bit longer this time around. Otherwise, the intensity is still the same.”

Another former Illini also returns to the Paralympics after winning gold four years ago.

Josh George, who will represent the U.S. and will compete in seven events, is as experienced as any athlete entering the Paralympics. George has competed in the last two Paralympic Games, earning two bronze medals (100 and 800) in 2004, and a silver (800) and gold (100) in 2008. George also won gold in four events at the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Trials.

Amberlynn Weber and Ray Martin, who will be missing their first days of classes as freshmen at the University, are participating in seven combined events in London. Weber, who will compete at the 100, 200 and the 400, won three gold medals at the Parapan American Games in 2011. Martin, competing at the 100, 200, 400 and the 800, won three gold medals at the 2012 U.S. Paralympic National Championships.

In all, 13 Illini will compete in track and field events, while 15 Illinois athletes will participate in wheelchair basketball.

Heading into the Opening Ceremonies on Wednesday, the Paralympics have never been bigger. A record 4,200 athletes and 165 countries will compete at the games. Fans are already buzzing about this year’s Paralympics, purchasing around 2.3 million tickets. Two athletes in particular should give fans their money’s worth: swimmer Daniel Dias of Brazil and sprinter Oscar Pistorius of South Africa.

Dias won more medals (nine) than anyone at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. He won gold in the 100 free, 200 free, 50 back and the 200 medley. Dias, 24, is considered one of the best swimmers in the world, winning 11 golds at last year’s Parapan American Games.

Pistorius might sound familiar already. He represented South Africa at the 2012 Olympics despite being a double-leg amputee. While he did not medal, he made history by becoming the first amputee runner to compete at the Olympics. After winning three gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics, the 25-year -old has high expectations heading into these games. But many believe he shouldn’t have been allowed to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

McGrory is a huge supporter of Pistorius participating in both events.

“I think it’s absolutely incredible,” McGrory said. “I think he’s brought a whole lot of publicity to Paralympic sports. The fact that he’s a Paralympian but is also able to compete in the Olympics Games, I think that brings a whole lot of legitimacy to Paralympic sports. Seeing that he has the ability to crossover and compete against able-bodied athletes despite not having any legs, I think that is huge for Paralympic sports.”

Dias and Pistorius are only two of the many athletes that will compete over the next two weeks.

Although these Paralympics are expected to be one the most successful ever, no events will be televised live in the U.S.

_The reporter can be reached at [email protected]_