|U.S. wheelchair racer Alexa Halko, pictured above, could be one to watch at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Rising U.S. wheelchair racer Alexa Halko has seen what the Paralympic Games can do for the world’s No. 1 ranked athlete in her T34 class.
British wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft had a breakout performance at the 2012 Games in London, soaring into international media headlines after sprinting to two gold medals on her home track.
Since then, she’s been the golden girl across European television screens and has even helped model a new clothing line in the UK.
Now, 15 months out from the Rio 2016 Games, it’s starting to look like Halko is acquiring all the right ingredients to follow in Cockroft’s path on this side of the Atlantic.
Halko, a 14-year-old T34 racer who just finished her freshman year of high school in Williamsburg, Virginia, will make her U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships debut when the event takes place from June 19-21 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
And the expectations are high for the youngest member of the U.S. team.
Halko, who has cerebral palsy, was a finalist for Team USA’s Best of May honors in the female category after making a name for herself on the world stage at last month’s IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, an event that doubled as the Desert Challenge Games.
In Mesa, she won four events, breaking a 19-year-old American record in the 200-meter (35.08) and defeating Canada’s three-time T52 Paralympic champion Michelle Stilwell in the process. She also smashed her own American record by nine seconds en route to winning the 1,500 (4:15.64), adding to her victories in the 100 and 800.
Halko, who competed at the 2014 IWAS World Junior Games last year in Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain, ranked fourth in the world in the 100 and 800 among T34 racers at the end of last season.
She’s exactly where she wants to be as she tries to qualify for August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto and October’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
And, as many teenagers do, Halko admitted she’s looking farther into the future.
“My major goal is to go to Rio 2016, and it has been my main goal for the past seven years,” Halko said.
Yes, you read that right. Seven years.
Halko was first introduced to Paralympic sports through the Greater Oklahoma Disabled Sports Association when she was 7 years old and living in Oklahoma.
“I started with wheelchair basketball, and I liked it for a while,” Halko said. “But then I turned to track and absolutely loved it, and loved getting to go very fast on the track.
“Any other time, you won’t see me moving fast in everyday life. But in my racing chair, I can really go fast and love it.”
When Halko’s family relocated to Virginia last year, she joined Sportable, an organization that provides the opportunity, skilled instruction and specialized equipment for 12 year-round Paralympic sports programs.
It’s now June, and Halko’s already done as much as some athletes will do all year. She began her season earlier than most, practicing in her racing chair as early as January. She posted photos of herself training at the College of William and Mary’s Zable Stadium in February, surrounded by snow.
In April, just before competing in the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, she spent time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where she trained on the track and was taught how to better her race strategy, race starts and finishes, body composition and nutrition.
Because there are not many T34 racers — a classification for seated athletes with athetosis, ataxia or hypertonia — in the United States, Halko tries to compete against T54 racers for practice and will talk to her British and Swiss competitors when she’s looking for race and training tips.
“My biggest weakness is still my pacing on the track,” Halko said. “I need to be able to get to the finish line with enough strength still at the end as if I had to keep going farther.”
Halko has already envisioned the finish lines in Toronto, Doha and Rio, and according to her, none of them look too far away.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.