ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Paralympic sport fans hear about the University of Illinois, they immediately think of wheelchair racing marathoners Tatyana McFadden and Josh George.
That’s understandable, considering the two have 15 Paralympic medals and 12 world titles between them in track and field.
“We have Tatyana McFadden, who is obviously a great athlete, and Josh George, who is in the best shape of his life,” said Illinois student Raymond Martin, a four-time Paralympic champion himself.
But the power duo is just the tip of the iceberg.
Or, perhaps in the case of central Illinois’ Big Ten institution, the top of the cornstalk would be a better analogy.
Either way, the point is that the University of Illinois wheelchair program has enough depth to be its own Paralympic delegation.
Twenty-two athletes with University of Illinois ties competed last weekend at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, taking away 13 national titles. (In the midst of competing at nationals, McFadden and George won their respective wheelchair titles Saturday morning at Grandma’s Marathon two hours north in Duluth, Minnesota. That night McFadden came back to St. Paul and won the 100-meter T54 race.)
The Illinois group of athletes included 12 Paralympians, six of whom are Paralympic medalists and four of whom are Paralympic champions.
At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, athletes from the university’s wheelchair track and field program accounted for 10 of the total 28 U.S. track and field medals won.
Three of its athletes have also been nominated for ESPY awards.
So, what attracts all of these wheelchair racers to Champaign, Illinois?
“Certainly not the cornfields,” joked Brian Siemann, who won national titles in the 100, 400 and 800 T53 races over the weekend.
“The U of I program has grown significantly since I first got there in 2008. I think there were maybe close to 10 or 11 athletes on the team when I got there, and now we have 22 and have five more coming in the fall.”
The university’s wheelchair track and field program is led by 10-year coach Adam Bleakney, a four-time U.S. Paralympian and a Paralympic silver medalist.
“He’s very laid back and calm,” said Susannah Scaroni, a fourth-year member of the program who finished just a couple of seconds behind McFadden in most of the weekend’s T53/54 races.
“Everything he says is just full of wisdom. He has a nice coaching style that’s not too intimidating or aggressive, but rather a gentle way of showing you exactly what you need to know.”
Scaroni, from Spokane, Washington, is the perfect example of an athlete who moved to America’s heart of wheelchair racing specifically so she could train with the country’s elite and make the U.S. Paralympic Team.
“You always hear about the University of Illinois’ amazing wheelchair racing program and its generations of world-record holders,” she said. “I heard about it all growing up.”
The university’s wheelchair athletics program dates back to 1948, when Timothy Nugent wanted men returning from World War II with injuries to have an outlet to become active once again.
By 1980, the program began to focus on competitive sports, becoming a hub of technology, research and advancement in wheelchair athletics.
Historically, the university has churned out top Paralympic athletes such as Sharon Hedrick, Jean Driscoll and Shawn Meredith.
These days, alumni are even sticking around in Champaign to continue training after they graduate, giving newcomers to the program some accomplished athletes to model themselves after.
Many made the decision to stay when the university was designated as an official U.S. Paralympic Training Site last September, with BP donating $160,000 for the creation of new facilities that measure 2,1000 square feet and boasts specialized equipment on roller stations, Nordic ski ergs and weights.
“It’s just an amazing venue now, and anyone who comes out to visit is very impressed,” Martin said.
Several Illinois athletes are having standout seasons on the track this year, with perhaps their most impressive meet being the Daniela Jutzeler Memorial race on June 4 in Arbon, Switzerland.
Eight of the 17 world records broken at the event were done so by Illinois athletes, as McFadden (T54: 400, 800 and 1,500) and Martin (T52: 100, 400 and 1,500) broke three world records apiece.
George and Siemann both ran under the existing 800 T53 world record, with George securing his name in the record books by finishing first.
Chelsea McClammer broke her first world record in the 5,000 T53 race.
From marathon greats McFadden and George to under-the-radar sprinters Martin and Siemann to up-and-comers Scaroni and McClammer, the university has without a doubt established itself as the world’s best hotbed of wheelchair racing talent.
With the national championships over, expectations will now heighten for these athletes, who are focusing on August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto and October’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
And before they know it, they could be trading in Champaign’s cornfields for Rio de Janeiro’s beaches.
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.