Sydney Bolen holds two American sprinting records and considers her competition in Paralympic programs to be a blessing.
Ahkeel Whitehead is a long jumper, a bass player in his high school orchestra and a former defensive player of the year for his football team at Chula Vista (Calif.) High School.
The two high school seniors, separated by more than 1,800 miles — one living in Memphis, Tenn., and the other on the West Coast — are part of a promising future for Paralympic Track & Field in the U.S. Both were named to the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School All-American Team. Both compete in the Paralympic cerebral palsy classes, 35 to 38.
In fact, Whitehead has a specific goal for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
“I’m here to compete,” said Whitehead, 17, who plans on attending the University of California, San Diego while he trains for Rio at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. “I plan on taking gold in every event that I compete in when I get to Rio in 2016. We’re starting that process now. Most definitely, that is the goal.”
That would be good news for Team USA, which won 98 medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, fourth best among all countries, but won zero medals in track and field’s cerebral palsy (CP) classes. The United States won 28 track and field medals overall, including nine gold.
“We’re the only country in the top six at the London Games that did not have cerebral palsy athletes on the podium,” said Catherine Sellers, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Track and Field.
And it’s not that U.S. CP athletes didn’t fare well in London. It’s just that U.S. Paralympics only had four athletes qualify for London in classes 35-38, which include athletes with cerebral palsy and others who have had a traumatic brain injury or stroke. All four made the finals in various events, including 38-year-old Chris Clemens, who placed sixth in the class F36 long jump and eighth in the class T36 200-meter run. Clemens, who was injured while serving with the U.S. Navy, also competed in the 100 but did not qualify for the final.
U.S. Paralympic officials hope to substantially expand those numbers over the next four years and produce medals in Rio de Janeiro.
“We would love to almost double our numbers in CP athletes,” Sellers said. “That’s one of our objectives: to identify, in particular, young women. But we will go with any level of CP. We do not have enough athletes to even run a 4x100 relay.”
That’s where athletes like Bolen come in. A 17-year-old senior at Westminster Academy in Memphis, her list of athletic and academic achievements is already impressively long. A Class 35 athlete, meaning cerebral palsy affects all four of her limbs, Bolen has competed for Team USA since 2010 and already holds American T35 junior records at 100 and 200 meters. She has been a U.S. Paralympics High School All-American twice, competed at the 2011 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships and in 2010, at age 15, was named U.S. Paralympics Track Athlete of the Year.
“Sydney has progressed and as she matures, I expect her to get stronger and stronger and actually become a force in class 35,” Sellers said. “She’s one of the young athletes in the pipeline at this time.”
The Rio Games would complete a dream for Bolen, who is a student ambassador at Westminster Academy and has a weighted 5.08 grade-point average. She has competed in track since she was 5, coached at first by her mom, Tammy, who works with cerebral palsy athletes at the junior age level. Sydney Bolen spent the summer watching the London 2012 Paralympic Games and Olympic Games on TV.
“This sport has been such a blessing,” she said. “The opportunities that it’s given me, the travel, and to be able to go to Rio and compete at the top athletic level with all these elite athletes would really mean the world to me and give the sense of confidence of yes, I can do it.”
While she competed in field events and also was involved in swimming at an earlier age, it is the 100 and 200 sprinting events that Bolen has been identified in at the international elite level.
“My favorite part about those two events is you just go,” she said. “You leave it all out there and go as fast as you can. You don’t have to worry about pacing and thinking, ‘What if I used too much energy?’”
While Bolen first competed as a preschooler with the Bennett Blazers physically challenged sports program in Baltimore, Whitehead didn’t enter the world of Paralympic Games until July 2011 after one of his high school track coaches in Chula Vista established a connection with a U.S. Paralympics’ coach. Before then, Whitehead was on the football, basketball and track teams at Chula Vista High School.
“They didn’t realize I had cerebral palsy,” Whitehead said. “I was just kind of with everybody else.”
Sellers believes that there are many other athletes around the United States just like Bolen and Whitehead, and that’s where a nationwide recruiting effort will help out.
“A lot of it is a matter of just recruiting and finding out where they are,” Sellers said. “Some of the upper-disability athletes may already be competing in some sport with able-bodied athletes. Those are the kids in particular that we would like to seek them out for our programs.”
“We were thrilled when they did start reaching out and they did start showing up at the junior events,” said Tammy Bolen, who coaches junior athletes at Mid South Adaptive Sports and Recreation in Memphis. “I’m hoping with the push for CP athletes it’ll trickle down (to junior-aged athletes), if they’re pushing it at the elite level and seeking out these athletes.”
Sydney Bolen, who volunteers to help out with young kids at Mid South Adaptive Sports and Recreation, says athletes who pursue an elite spot on the U.S. Paralympics team can also provide an inspiration for others.
“It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to put in the work, you’re going to put in the time and effort to get to where you want to be,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth it. With Paralympic sport, you have a chance to inspire other people along the way and be a part of something amazing, something that affects you not only physically, but mentally as well.”
Whitehead also hopes that his competition in Paralympic programs will lead others to do the same. He is considering studying kinesiology in college so that he can understand cerebral palsy better.
“I want to understand how the body works, how I can deal with cerebral palsy, but then also help others,” he said. “I most definitely want to give back to the community and just raise the awareness of cerebral palsy and either help by going to school and learning about the body so I can maybe train a group, maybe get a program going in San Diego.”