Twelve years ago, Cheri Becerra-Madsen was on top of the world.
The 24-year-old was coming off consecutive Paralympic Games in which she had won multiple medals and also took home bronze in an exhibition race at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She was one of the best wheelchair racers around.
Becerra-Madsen’s brother, Mario III, always would travel with his sister to racing events. He was one of her biggest supporters. When Becerra-Madsen decided to put her racing career on hold in 2000 to start a family, her brother, who was 15 years younger, never stopped pushing her to return to competition.
“I never really knew if I ever would,” said Becerra-Madsen, who got married and had two daughters since she last raced. “I had gained a bunch of weight having the kids, and (Mario) would always say, ‘You have to do it.’”
Becerra-Madsen never lost the desire to race, but life took a turn on Dec. 23, 2007. That afternoon, Mario III and their father, Mario Jr., were killed in a car-train crash. Mario III was the youngest of six Becerra children and was just 15 years old.
“All the best of us were in this one little person,” Becerra-Madsen said. “The day he was taken from us, it’s hard thinking about it now. It still makes me cry. I think I still shed a tear for him every day.
With Mario’s lasting words of encourage in her mind, Becerra-Madsen started training again last August to return to competition. Now Becerra-Madsen competes in memory of her brother, and it’s one of the main driving forces in her comeback.
The first major feat for Becerra-Madsen came when she earned a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships on July 19-28 in Lyon, France. It marks the first time Becerra-Madsen will compete at worlds.
“I was thrilled and I know my hard work is paying off,” said Becerra-Madsen, who qualified in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter events for the world championships.
With her daughters now 9 and 7, Becerra-Madsen feels she again has the time to dedicate to training and is attempting to make up for lost time on the track.
Becerra-Madsen, who was 4 when an unknown virus attacked her spine and left her paralyzed, began wheelchair racing in 1994. Just two years later, Becerra-Madsen, an Omaha Indian, became the first Native American to win an Olympic medal, taking home the bronze during an exhibition 800-meter wheelchair race at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
The Union, Neb., native also earned two silver and two bronze medals at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games and set two world records while collecting two gold medals at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
Becerra-Madsen, who is now 36, hired personal trainer Mike Kearney to help her on the comeback trail. Kearney has been amazed by Becerra-Madsen’s drive to succeed once again in the sport she loves.
“She’s always had the attitude to do it,” Kearney said. “She’s just a physical specimen. You look at her, she’s thick, she’s strong. I always tell people, ‘If she had the ability to have her legs, she’d still be in the Olympics because she is just an amazing athlete.’ … I have yet to find somebody that works as hard as her.”
Kearney has been working with Becerra-Madsen to get her even stronger to help generate more power and build speed for her races.
After six months of training, Becerra-Madsen got into her wheelchair and onto the track for the first time in March. She is working out vigorously three hours a day, six days a week. It’s a regular routine that Becerra-Madsen loves. She admitted, however, that training has been quite a bit tougher after the long layoff.
“When I was in my 20s, it was really easy,” Becerra-Madsen said. “I miss the competing, and I really miss the training. But that I’m training again, I feel so much better. It’s almost kind of like an addiction. When I don’t, I feel like I’m missing something.”
Becerra-Madsen believes she still has work to do to get back to how dominant she was on the track in 2000. Kearney, though, likes Becerra-Madsen’s progress during the first six months he’s worked with her.
“She’s developed really well. I think she’s right back to the form where she was back then,” Kearney said. “She might be a little thicker now, as far as muscles, and I’d like to get her stronger and faster.”
Becerra-Madsen hasn’t missed a beat in her comeback. She even surprised herself by making the U.S. team roster for the 2013 World Championships.
Becerra-Madsen has lofty goals for her second go-around in wheelchair racing. She’d like to break a couple world records again, compete in her first marathon and ultimately compete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
“It would mean so much,” Becerra-Madsen said. “I know my brother’s up there rooting me on. Just being out there again, it’s just going to make me feel overwhelmed. I know I’ll probably be shedding tears. Not only do I hope to be there, I hope to be competitive and get some more medals under my belt.”