Going for the Gold: How fate led Chelsea McClammer to the track

By Annemarie Blanco | July 17, 2015, 1:22 p.m. (ET)

Chelsea McClammer, pictured above, competing during the Guadalajara 2011 Parapan American Games in the 400m - T53.

Twice a week, Going for the Gold will highlight a member of Team USA’s Parapan American roster leading up to the games beginning on August 7. Features will take a deeper look at a member of each of the 14 Paralympic sports that the U.S. will compete in during the 2015 Parapan American Games, held in Toronto. The seventh installment spotlights wheelchair track athlete Chelsea McClammer (Richland, Washington).

At fourteen, Chelsea McClammer was the youngest member of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic U.S. Track and Field team. Now seven years later, the 21-year-old track star is hoping to continue her streak of excellence into Toronto, the world championships in Qatar and the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

“I think Beijing for me was just getting the nerves out,” McClammer explained, reflecting back on her first Paralympic Games. “It taught me about getting ready for other competitions where I’d have to perform at a higher level, meeting the team and just getting my name out there.”

For McClammer, sports just seemed to come naturally. Growing up she immersed herself in basketball, tennis and track, extending herself to playing multiple sports into college. But, with competitive training comes little time for anything else, and she had to make a choice.

“When I started college I was on the University of Illinois basketball team, taking classes and doing track,” explained McClammer. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in sports was choose. It just sort of became apparent to me that I would need to choose one sport, at least until after Rio. It wasn’t hard for me to pick track, but it was hard for me to stop playing basketball in order to do track.”

For now, McClammer has dedicated herself to achieving her dream of athletic excellence. The first step is training with her team six days a week in Champaign, Illinois. Known for its successful wheelchair track program, the school has fostered incredible Paralympic talents including Tatyana McFadden, Ray Martin and Josh George. After high school, McClammer’s decision to leave Washington and head to Illinois came easily.

“The number one thing is our coach Adam Bleakney,” said McClammer. “He is also a Paralympian, he still races, still does marathons. He’s a huge part of the team and knows exactly what we need to do and when we need to do it.”

“I grew up training by myself. I had a great coach in Washington but there’s a huge difference between training by myself and training with a team. With sprinting events you don’t have to work with anyone else. Since I’ve been to Illinois, I’ve realized that my favorite events are the distance events so training with the team here is really great.”

McClammer’s competitive side has always been a part of her nature. When she incurred a spinal injury after a car accident at the age of six, she refused to let her injury define her. Instead, she found sports as an outlet to help her cope.

“I think before I started track, I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do in life. Nothing was really working for me. Then, I started track. I went to a disabled sports jamboree and met my coach from Spokane. She asked me if I wanted to do track, I said yes and then she picked me up on their way to a 5K road race and that was the first time I was in a race chair.”

McClammer met Theresa Skinner at the age of 11. By 12, she had qualified for the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Nationals and only two years later was named a member of Team USA for the 2008 Paralympic Games.

“As a kid, track was just something to do. But as I grew up, I realized that I loved it. It’s brought me huge opportunities and allowed me to go to amazing places. It’s a part of my life now.”

When she’s not training, she’s completing a degree in human development and family studies with the hope of helping children in the future.

“After the accident and I became paralyzed, I went to rehab at Seattle Children’s Hospital,” McClammer said. “My dream is to move back to Seattle after grad school and work there as an injury rehab counselor for the children there.”

Before she heads back home, her focus now is the 2015 Parapan American Games this August. McClammer will have a full schedule when she lands in Toronto, competing in the 400-meter, 800, 1500, 5000 and 4x4 relay races. But, a heavy dose of competition doesn’t make the star athlete nervous, instead she welcomes the challenge.

“My thing is that I always enjoy what I’m doing. If you don’t enjoy your training and your competition, then you’re not going to progress and your day just won’t be as good.”

If the last seven years are any indication, McClammer will have more than a few good days in her future.

Parapan American track and field competitions will be held at the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletics Stadium beginning on Monday, August 10th and concluding on Friday, August 14. The U.S. women’s roster features many Paralympians including: Angela Madsen, Cheri Madsen, Hannah McFadden, Cassie Mitchell, Kerri Morgan and Shirley Reilly. For more information on the upcoming Parapan American Games visit Toronto2015.org.