Greta Neimanas’ eyes grow large as she spies a bowl of chocolate covered candies. They are her favorite, and she grabs a handful. The sweet might not be thought of as the choice of athletic champions, but then again, Neimanas has never done much the usual way.
Her results, however, show that she might be onto something.
The native of Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is readying to compete in her second Paralympic Games in London. Already in the United Kingdom, training in Newport, Wales, Neimanas enters these Games as a seven-time national champion, 13-time world championship medalist and ParaPan Am Games gold medalist. In London, she will compete in both track and road events.
She sports tattoos, wears tall socks and is self described as “quirky”. Born without a left arm below her elbow, Neimanas never let her disability stop her from trying anything. Growing up, she went skiing and on camping trips. She would flock to adventure the way Black Friday shoppers race to the mall.
In an article written about Neimanas on the website for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where she began working with therapists when she was 3, a woman named Jamee Heelan was quoted as saying, “She has challenged our prosthetic team with each idea she has, which challenges us to find a better prosthetic socket to meet her ever-growing interests in kayaking and cycling.”
Neimanas took to the sport of cycling at first sight. She won a contest for an essay she titled “What Ability Means to Me,” and was chosen as one of six athletes to travel to the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. While in Athens, Neimanas got her first glance of track cycling. It was that moment that her life switched gears — literally.
Her mind was racing.
“That is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” she recalled thinking. “These people are out of their minds.”
Her next thought?
“When can I try it?”
She answered that question as soon as she returned home. Three years later, she was competing in Bordeaux, France, at the IPC Cycling World Championships and she earned a bronze medal in the road time trial event. The following year, she earned a spot on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team. According to John Register, who helped develop the inaugural Paralympic Academy, and is now associate director for community and military programs for U.S. Paralympics, Neimanas was the first person to participate in the program who went on to make the U.S. Paralympic team.
As excited as she was to compete in Beijing, she also experienced a great deal of grief. Her father, whom Neimanas described in a blog as a longtime alcoholic, was hospitalized. He died shortly before Neimanas was set to leave for Beijing. A day after her father’s death, she flew to her “home” at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Torn by her desire to compete and her guilt about focusing on her own dream in the wake of her father’s death, Neimanas wrote that her experience in Beijing was much of a blur. Still, she managed to finish fourth in the women’s individual time trial, fifth in the women’s individual pursuit and eighth in the 500-meter time trial.
Now, as she prepares for London, she admittedly is in a much better place. She is a more experienced competitor and her mental mindset is both stronger and less stressed. Neimanas, who trained in Colorado Springs from 2007-11, relocated to San Diego, where she has off-campus access to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in nearby Chula Vista, Calif. She’s also a part of the Exergy TWENTY12 team, which also features Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong.
At the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships held in Los Angeles in February, Neimanas won a gold medal in a scratch race and two silver medals in the individual pursuit and time trial.
Neimanas tuned into some of the London 2012 Olympic Games and admitted she is “a sucker for a good underdog story.”
One of her favorite moments from the Games was the men’s 10,000-meter running race, in which Britain’s Mohammed Farah won the gold and beat American training mate Galen Rupp by less than half a second. The two embraced on the track after their 1-2 finish.
“It was amazing to see the friendship of the two athletes that transcended nationalities,” Neimanas wrote in an email. “Yes they have the same coach and they train together all the time but it seemed like a moment that really embodied the Olympic spirit.”
Like Rupp, Neimanas will have a strong British competitor. In London, she will face Sarah Storey, who was born with a non-functioning left hand, has won 18 Paralympic medals, two in cycling and the rest in swimming, dating back to 1992.
“Sarah's a fierce competitor and has been the one to beat for the past few years,” Neimanas wrote. “She will definitely have hometown support and that's fine with me. I know how to race, my teammates are fantastic and my family is coming to watch and cheer. It'll be just fine.”
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