Alexa Halko’s sole focus the last seven years was making it to Rio de Janeiro.
And did she ever make her mark in getting there.
Halko became the youngest American to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games when she broke a world record at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for track and field in June. She finished the 800-meter race in 2 minutes, 1.83 seconds, breaking her own T34 world record by a second.
“When I got the world record I was stunned,” said 16-year-old Halko, who’ll be a junior this fall at Jamestown High School in Williamsburg, Virginia. “After so much work, I couldn’t believe I did it.”
Halko said the 800 is her best race, but definitely not her favorite.
“There’s so much strategy in the 800, and sometimes my brain takes over me,” Halko said. “It’s like a war in that race.”
Halko, who has cerebral palsy, got into wheelchair basketball and racing at age 7. She likes wheelchair basketball and still plays. But when it comes to racing, she’s a thoroughbred on wheels.
Halko competes in the 100, 400 and 800, saying the 400 was her favorite since it’s an all-out sprint around the track. Halko said she gains power at the 200-meter mark of the races and that she needs to work on sustaining that power and motivation through the end of her races.
That can become particularly challenging.
She doesn’t have a wheelchair training partner, so practices can “get frustrating,” she said. And with so few competitors in the United States, she races against T53 athletes in combined races.
Still, the teenager powers through all of those challenges.
Her day is filled with training and lots of arm work. She gets up in the morning and goes to swim training at the neighborhood pool until 9:30 a.m. In late afternoon she does a workout at the track, unless she trains on the 7-mile trail near her home.
She hits the weights hard on the weekends, putting extra effort into upper body and triceps training.
“I also work on pacing a lot,” Halko said. “I’m working on staying through the end of the race instead of dying out in the middle.”
If her workouts parlay into better times, then she could be the first T34 woman to break the 2-minute mark in the 800. That’s not her immediate goal, though.
“I need to keep clear that Rio was my goal, and I want to medal in Rio,” Halko said.
Halko said she hasn’t put much stock into thinking about the sport beyond Rio, justly because her entire vision was simply getting to this year’s Paralympic Games.
“I have no set plans beyond Rio,” she said. “The goal to get to Rio was what pushed me. It has become so much a part of my life, and I don’t want to let it go.”
Although practices can be trying, she said she does enjoy the travel that has come with the sport.
“First I got to go to different states, and then to different countries,” Halko said. “When I first got into wheelchair sports I never believed it would lead to so much travel.”
Halko said the dream of getting to Rio began seven years ago, about the same time her younger sister gave her a pair of socks for Christmas. Alexa always lost socks and would walk around with a mismatched pair.
“The pair she got me for Christmas became my lucky socks and I wore them at all my races,” Alexa said. “I don’t wear them anymore because, well, I lost them, too.”
She never lost focus on getting to Rio, though. It’s what pushed her since she first got competitive, it’s what pushed her through training without a partner, through trail rides and dip workouts and getting up in the summer for those early-morning swims.
“The hard part was getting there, now it’s time to go down there and have fun.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.