Daniel Romanchuk, pictured above crossing the finish line in first place at the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon, finished second in the Tokyo Marathon on March 3, 2019.
The rise into the world of elite wheelchair racing has come quickly for 2016 Paralympian Daniel Romanchuk.
At age 20 this past November, Romanchuk became the first American man to win the wheelchair championship in the New York City Marathon.
He had already won the Chicago Marathon.
On Sunday in Japan, he finished second in the Tokyo Marathon, another ace in the Abbott World Marathon Majors Series. And he nearly won the race, finishing runner-up to Switzerland’s Marcel Hug, the defending series champion who delivered a dominating performance in Tokyo.
The race gave Romanchuk a sneak preview of the city where the Paralympic Games will be held more than one year from now.
“I’m very excited for the Games coming up,” Romanchuk told TeamUSA.org after Sunday’s race.
“I got my sixth star today,” Romanchuk said. “Very excited for that, as well as to be able to be here before the (2020 Paralympic) Games to kind of see how things are going to be. A very good experience.”
The other races in the World Marathon Majors are Boston, London, New York, Chicago and Berlin.
“They are six very unique races all across the world, but they’re all united with the love of racing,” Romanchuk said.
Romanchuk not only is a six-star achiever, but he is at the top of the men’s wheelchair marathon standings with 83 points, still leading Hug by two points. Hug, a three-time New York City Marathon winner and a four-time Paralympian who won two gold medals in 2016 in Rio, won Sunday’s race, but not before he fought off challenges from Romanchuk in the early and mid-points of the race.
Hug clocked in with a time of 1 hour, 30 minutes, 44 seconds. Romanchuk finished in 1:34.26.
“I have a huge amount of respect for Marcel as a racer and as a person,” said Romanchuk, the youngest elite man in Sunday’s wheelchair division.
Hug was already winning marathons and had won multiple world titles at different distances when Romanchuk participated in his major marathon in New York in 2016 as an 18-year-old. Born with spina bifida, Romanchuk first took on distance racing in 2014. Though he didn’t make the finals in any track events in the Paralympic Games in Rio, he has set world records in the 800- and 5,000-meter.
A native of Maryland, Romanchuk’s move to the University of Illinois has paid dividends. There he is training under Adam Bleakney, a four-time U.S. Paralympian and wheelchair racer who once finished the Chicago Marathon despite crashing and suffering a mild concussion in the middle of the race. The athletes Romanchuk trains alongside on the Illinois wheelchair team include Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who was the first woman to win three consecutive wheelchair marathon grand slams.
“There’s no place like it,” Romanchuk said, “with the combination of coaching and athletes that are there. It’s just an incredible experience to be able to train there. We all push each other and learn from each other.”
The training has led Romanchuk to two victories and a runner-up finish in his last three marathons, clearly putting him on a global stage with the sport’s best racers.
“Last year I had a goal to podium at a world major and to be where I am this year, I never would have expected to be here within this time frame,” Romanchuk said in an interview last week prior to the Tokyo Marathon.
At the beginning of his transition to long-distance racing, Romanchuk hoped to just hang with the leaders for a few miles. And now, he’s at the front of the pack playing the chess game that all racers do.
“Just over the past few years,” he said, “my ability to concentrate over the larger distances like the marathon has improved. A few years ago, I was just concentrating on, ‘OK, stay with the pack for this many miles and just try to stay in the pack.’
“Now I’m being able to concentrate on staying with the pack and concentrating on who’s where in the pack, what’s going on, keeping track of break-away attempts, things like that.”
And chances are, all those racers have their eyes on him. That will certainly happen all the way to the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.