CHICAGO — Allysa Seely came to Chicago hoping to win a bronze medal at the 2015 ITU Elite Paratriathlon World Championships.
Instead, she won gold.
Seely passed her teammates, Hailey Danisewicz and Melissa Stockwell — both former world champions — midway through the run around Chicago’s Grant Park.
“I didn’t know how far I was in front of them until I entered the Buckingham Fountain circle (near the finish),” she said. “At that point, I started crying because I knew it was mine.”
The 26-year-old paratriathlete has made the podium in most of her races this season. But it’s been a struggle. Coming to the world championships, her goal was first, to put together a good swim, bike and run; and second, to win a bronze medal. So the gold medal was an unexpected thrill.
Seely also led a Team USA podium sweep, with Danisewicz and Stockwell crossing the finish line within a minute of Seely’s winning time.
“It’s safe to say that the USA PT2 women are dominant in the world,” said Stockwell, an Iraq veteran competing in her hometown — with her husband and infant son cheering. “I’m proud to be part of it.”
Danisewicz, 24, claimed more than a silver medal. She is the first 2016 U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team qualifier — a spot that she earned by winning the Rio paratriathlon world event in August. The qualification also makes her the first U.S. triathlete ever to qualify for the Paralympic Games, with paratriathlon making its debut next year.
It’s been a rapid rise to the top for Danisewicz, who lost her left leg to bone cancer when she was a teen. She began competing in paratriathlon five years ago, with Stockwell serving as her mentor.
The U.S. can earn a maximum of two spots in each of the six medal events at the Rio 2016 Paralympic triathlon (three for men, three for women, in categories based on impairment). Seely’s win secured one quota spot for the U.S., which Danisewicz filled with her performance at the Rio test event last month. The second spot for the women’s PT2 category will be determined in a selection race next spring.
For Seely, her world title means that she has met the standard to make the 2016 Paralympic team. But she has not secured the second spot.
“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “We’re all great friends and great teammates, and we all really want to be there. This isn’t a spot for me to Rio. This is a great stepping-stone, but I still have a lot of work to do to earn that spot.”
Seely began triathlon as an able-bodied athlete in 2008, when she was a freshman at Arizona State University. But soon after, she developed neurological symptoms, such as losing feeling in her legs. Doctors later determined that her brain was herniated into her spine. It’s a condition most often found in young children, and for Seely, it caused both a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.
She fought back with surgery and occupational therapy. But a couple of years later, her left foot was still impaired and infected. Doctors amputated below the knee. In 2012, Seely began competing in ITU paratriathlon events and quickly made the podium. This is her first world title.
Both Seely and Stockwell — the first female soldier to lose a limb in Iraq — have a good chance of joining Danisewicz in Rio. They have both consistently made the podium this season, including three USA podium sweeps.
And in the world championship, it might have been Stockwell on the top of the podium had her prosthetic belt not broken. A 2008 Paralympic swimmer, she was ahead after the swim and bike and only lost one minute on the run.
Danisewicz, who was undefeated this season coming into the world championships, hopes that both her friends and teammates can join her in Rio.
The International Paralympic Committee and ITU may invite eight male and eight female athletes to compete in the 2016 Paralympic triathlon if there are vacancies in the categories.
“I would love to have another podium sweep in Rio,” Danisewicz said. “That would pretty much be the cherry on top of the last five years.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.