Nick Mayhugh competes at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 31, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Nick Mayhugh is a sponge. He has never competed in a national or international Para track and field event — his first scheduled competition was supposed to be the Desert Challenge Games in April which were canceled — but at the rate he is soaking up the sport he’s already being considered a top Team USA hopeful for the postponed Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The 24-year-old was the 2019 U.S. Soccer Player of the Year with a Disability after leading the U.S. to its first international medal in soccer 7-a-side. He bagged eight of the squad’s goals, including the decisive score in the bronze-medal match, at last year’s Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
But without soccer 7-a-side on the Paralympic Games program, Mayhugh held a side conversation in Lima with U.S. Paralympic Track and Field coach Joaquim Cruz about testing out his skills on the track.
“He shot it straight and said, ‘I often get a lot of athletes who think they can do both and take on the workload of two sports. What makes you different? What makes you want to do this? Do you know what it takes?’
“I know what type of person I am and the type of athlete I am,” Mayhugh rebutted. "I know that if I commit to this then I can put 100 percent towards it and realistically get to Tokyo and hopefully bring a medal home.”
Cruz believed him. His eagerness, determination and ambition were palpable in that conversation.
As a perfectionist who overly obsesses with anything he’s passionate about, Mayhugh quickly started drooling over the mechanics and training regimens that come with the track. His energy for the sport was enterprising off the bat as he began training 10 hours a day, six days week, constantly identifying areas of improvement for himself.
“It is humbling as hell,” Mayhugh said. “Going from playing soccer at the level that I have and then to track and field is very frustrating, but very humbling.”
Mayhugh grew up a hyperactive kid, always one of the fastest players on his soccer team and using running as an “escape” in middle school, starring in both the 800-meter and mile distances. His middle school even named a long-distance running award after him.
But throughout his childhood, he groaned and moaned to his parents about the left side of his body feeling numb. He knew something was wrong, but nobody believed him. He couldn’t tie his shoes, so he’d just bundle them together and tuck them beneath the tongue of the shoe. He was the only student to fail his music class, as he couldn’t feel the holes on the recorder with his left hand.
“There were days when I’d lock myself in my room at home and teach myself how to walk back and forth without a limb in my left leg and try to hide it,” Mayhugh said. “I’d also work hours and hours with my brother out on the street. We’d set up cones after I got home from soccer practice and just do soccer drills back and forth just him and I until the sun went down to teach myself how to use my left foot and make it as good as my right.”
It wasn’t until 2010, when he was a freshman in high school, that Mayhugh had a grand mal seizure and an MRI revealed a dead spot on the right side of his brain. It was then that he was formally diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
It was almost a sigh of relief for Mayhugh; he now knew he wasn’t making up the numbness.
Having idolized soccer stars Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry growing up (he now has tattoos of both), his first question to the neurologist was, “When can I play soccer again?”
“Nick, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to play soccer again,” she said.
But he expunged that notion almost immediately, going on to play for Radford University and the U.S. 7-a-side national team before transitioning to the track.
More humbled now than ever, Mayhugh hopes to next represent Team USA on the track in Tokyo in the 100, 200 and 400-meter events in the T37 classification.
“I’m completely naked to the sport of track and field, but I respect it now because I know how much it takes to become one of the best in the sport,” he said.
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.