Leading the pack: Paralympic marathoner, coach guides Illinois athletes at London 2012

_Editors Note: This article was written for Walt Harrington’s Literary Feature Writing class in Spring of 2012._

Adam Bleakney wishes he was on the open road right now, pushing his slender orange racing chair up hills around the country roads in Urbana. Instead, the olive-skinned 37-year-old coach is cruising in his gray minivan, one hand on the wheel and his head out the window, telling his athletes to keep pushing.

“A flat front tire never killed anyone,” he says, joking.

His bulky, black wheelchair is stashed in the trunk and, instead of using his arms to propel himself as quickly as possible, he uses his hand controls to raise his van’s speed and see how fast his friend Josh George can make it between hills.

“Twenty-seven miles an hour,” Adam calls out the window. “You’re really killing it.”

He keeps the window open, letting in the hot air. He doesn’t want to seem pampered, riding in his minivan while his athletes are sweating. These athletes have been waiting four years for the Paralympics; it’s Bleakney’s job to ensure they make the most of it.

***

Adam was calm and soft spoken when he arrived at Illinois for school in 1997. He hadn’t developed a style yet. His addiction to coffee was not quite there — he could survive a day without a cup. He hadn’t married the love of his life, Laura, or made the decision to cut meat out of his diet. He had never been a leader of anyone, let alone become the head wheelchair racing coach at Illinois and coach of the world’s top Paralympic athletes. His light brown hair was still full, with no hints of gray or bald patches. He’d finished about a dozen marathons, but hadn’t come close to winning one. He hadn’t finished second in the Paralympics. He hadn’t witnessed the birth of his two sons, or taken up the banjo. Back then, he cared only about himself, finding his place in the world and being the best he could be. It would be many years before Adam would learn to put aside his personal goals to help achieve the dreams of others.

It would be many years before he would learn what it means to be a coach.

***

Adam drives along, chatting with his student assistant, Anna, and identifying his tribe of athletes, by their animal doppelganger identities and qualities. Josh, who fell out of a 14th-story window at the age of four, is a snake because of his appearance and sly persona. Jessica Galli, 2006 alumna and volunteer assistant coach still training with the team, who was in a car accident as a young child, is a chipmunk because it fits her face and nonstop personality. Aaron Pike, a 2007 alumnus and volunteer assistant coach still training with the team, who was shot in a hunting accident at 14, is a Saint Bernard with a long, serious face. Robert Kozarek, a 2012 alumnus and volunteer assistant coach, got in a car accident between his junior and senior years of high school. He doesn’t have an animal yet, although as the largest member of the team it’s probably some type of bear. And Adam, with his knowledgeable brown eyes, long neck and small head, he’s a wise old turtle.

Adam’s accident happened during a trip to Colorado with his best friend Seth in 1994, the summer after his freshman year of college at the University of Saint Thomas. They were mountain biking through Breckenridge, maneuvering up steep dirt paths through trees and rocks when he ran over a fallen tree, tumbling off his bike and broke his back. Adam only remembers pieces of that day — that it hurt too much to move his arm, the shrill sound of paramedics chopping down trees for the humming helicopters to land and the empty feeling in his legs.

Adam was always injury prone: the time he tumbled off a tractor and hit his head, the time he was running down the street and ran into a telephone pole. In his wheelchair, the accidents continued — he ran into cars and trees and even a person. Even as a competitive racer, he would fall. While racing in the Disney Marathon, he ran into a bench while exiting Cinderella’s castle.

After his legs were paralyzed, the former collegiate wrestler returned home and started junior college. Needing a way to stay competitive in the constraints of his chair, Adam began wheelchair road racing almost immediately. At the Boston Marathon in 1997, Adam first met Marty Morse, the then-Illinois wheelchair track and field head coach who had built the Illinois program into a national powerhouse, at a bus stop. Marty, struck by Adam’s natural talent, immediately began recruiting Adam.

“The only time I ever recruited off the street,” Marty recalls.

When Adam came to Illinois, he planned to complete his undergraduate degree in English and become one of the top wheelchair racers in the nation. Marty was his mentor, coach and friend. The conversations began: at practice, on the weekends, on the phone and in Marty’s office — training plans, best ways to sit in the chair, what gloves to wear, what wheels to install, the proper pre-race mentality. The lessons took and Adam became one of

the top wheelchair athletes in the program. He won the Chicago Marathon in 2002 and was a member of the 2002 U.S. World Championship track and field team in Lille, France.

The realization that Marty was grooming Adam to become a coach clicked when Adam stayed on for graduate school and realized he was earning two masters degrees: one in journalism — the art and craft of interviewing, reporting and fact-checking — and in Marty — the art and craft of exercise, training and mental strength.

“I got a better understanding as to why Marty was having me do what I did when I did,” Adam says. “This was very helpful to me as an athlete and a coach, though at that point, I was pulling in that information to be a better athlete and to have a better relationship with Marty.”

After graduation, Adam took a job publicizing youth wheelchair equipment in Atlanta. The city wasn’t what Adam thought it would be. He couldn’t stand the traffic, that it took him nearly an hour to drive home from work, being so far from his family. Yet he was at the peak of his training then, and he won the Paralympic silver medal in the 800-meter sprint at the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004. That year, when Marty stepped down as Illinois coach and Adam was offered his job at $32,000 a year, he jumped at the chance.

“Adam was the only guy I wanted for the job,” Marty says.

As coach, Adam remained a competitor. He couldn’t imagine life without racing. But combining coaching and training was harder than he had expected. He couldn’t put himself first anymore. During interval track workouts, it was better for the athletes if Adam did double the repetitions at a slower speed, allowing his athletes to draft off him. This was not so good for him. The experience put a strain on his body and he stopped getting faster.

He could better pick up mistakes an athlete makes when riding in a racing chair next to them at whatever was the athlete’s speed. This drastically diminished his own training time. Often, before races, Adam had to help an athlete fix a flat tire or offer a quick word of advice, instead of focusing on himself.

“I wanted to do Marty justice,” he says.

In the years since, Adam has recruited some of the top athletes in the country, coached world-record holders, Paralympic gold medalists, and multiple national team members. Adam was named United States Olympic Committee Paralympic Coach of the Year in 2007. With Illinois being one of only three collegiate wheelchair racing programs in the country, Adam is able to confidently say his school had a larger, stronger gathering of athletes than anywhere else, even the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Adam coached four athletes to world records and he brought six athletes to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, where they won 14 medals, half of the ones won by U.S. Paralympic athletes.

But Adam, who also competed, didn’t win a medal.It was frustrating for him, trying to race while coaching, trying to be in two places at once. He had been at a racing time plateau for a few years but had no time to improve. After Beijing, Adam made a choice: “I’m done with Paralympics. I’m just going to coach.”

“It’s a different sense of reward I get when my athletes achieve. It makes me feel like I made a difference in their lives, and I accomplished something great through them.”

***

Hours and hours each weekday, Adam sits in his office, coaching. He’s carrying on what Marty had started: coaching for more than just to win, evaluating athletes as individuals — their body types, personalities and individualized training regimens. He takes every coach he liked and tries to imitate their best qualities: listening to what athletes say, providing positive feedback, giving second chances. He tries to avoid the worst qualities of the coaches he disliked: yelling for no good reason, forcing an athlete to do the same exercise unsuccessfully over and over, not allowing time for fun, jokes and laughter. Adam draws his main coaching philosophy from his father, who coached Adam through elementary and middle school.

“I think about the process instead of winning,” Adam says. “If you work hard in training and in practice and are doing everything right there, then winning will take care of itself.”

***

The decision to stop racing altogether didn’t last long. Adam stopped his track and speed workouts but the road races and marathons, the miles rolling through the Champaign and Urbana country roads, he just couldn’t quit. He loved being out there pushing around hills and feeling the cool breeze. So Adam decided to keep doing distance and road races, but mostly for fun. It turned out he was able to use the strategies he implemented for his athletes on himself. He stopped pushing with a flat powerful stroke and instead went the finesse route, pushing with his fingers and thumbs. He switched his seating position, no longer resting on his butt but instead directly on his heels, for better posture and stabilization in the chair. He began getting faster for the first time in years. Adam raced in the Chicago Marathon last October and earned a bid to compete in the 2012 London Paralympics.

So he is currently with his team in London — with 10 days as a coach and one day as an athlete. Eleven current and former Illini wheelchair track athletes will represent Team USA in the Paralympics.

“I want to be there helping them achieve their goals,” Adam says of his athletes. “Watching their faces when they succeed, that’s much more exciting than winning myself.”

_Emily can be reached at [email protected] and @EmilyBayci._