Cheri Madsen poses on the podium at the medal ceremony for the women's 100-meter T54 at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 1, 2021 in Tokyo.
When Paralympian Cheri Madsen first started as a wheelchair racer at 15 years old, she knew nothing about the sport. And it was her American Indian family who helped her with the funds so she could compete.
“My grandmother [who is Omaha Indian] and my family went to the reservation to see if the family could help. They started a matching fund for me; they would match it every time I raised money. And that was how I started my career, being able to participate in events. They’ve been huge supporters,” she exclaimed.
After competing at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 at her fourth Games — where she earned two medals and officially called it quits — they were there to support her at the end, too.
“They came to the airport when I got back from Tokyo and surprised me,” she said about her Native American family members. “It was cool.”
Grandma Moves In
When the 45-year-old was four years old, she woke up from a nap and found herself unable to walk. She was diagnosed with “an unknown virus” that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Soon after, “my [maternal] grandma moved in with my mom to help raise us,” Madsen said about her and her five siblings.
Her grandmother moved off the reservation when she was 17, as she was of the generation that “wanted to leave to try to make a better life for her kids,” the 10-time medalist said.
The two spent a lot of time together growing up, and Madsen learned a lot about her heritage from her grandma. “She took care of us: she cooked, cleaned, braided my hair. We were really close.” Eventually, when Madsen fell in love and got married, her grandma moved in with her and her new husband.
Keeping the Family Heritage Alive
Having lost her grandma years ago and more recently her mom in November 2020, Madsen tries to keep her heritage alive by sharing the stories with her 18- and 15-year-old daughters.
As a family, they have gone back to visit the reservation and taken part in powwows, a celebration of American Indian culture where tribal communities gather to sing and dance as a way to honor the traditions of their ancestors.
“To be an Omaha Native American, I feel honored to represent them,” the wheelchair racer said. “I always love going back and speaking with the youth.”
Madsen said she feels a responsibility to the younger Native American generation to share her story and her journey.
By doing speaking engagements, she said she hopes to lead by example that there are a lot of possibilities available to them. “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.”