Meet Hailey Danisewicz

By John Rosengren | Aug. 26, 2016, 10:46 a.m. (ET)

Hailey Danisewicz

Team USA carries the role of favorite into the first Paralympic Games triathlon ­— mostly because of Hailey Danisewicz

Hailey Danisewicz was nervous before her first triathlon. Understandably. She had been good at sports — volleyball, basketball and soccer — before she was diagnosed with bone cancer as a 12-year-old. She loved competition and being active, but by the time doctors amputated her left leg above the knee two years later, she had written off sports, afraid to try them again — and fail. 

Until, as a psychology major at Northwestern University, she applied for an internship at the Chicago-based Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association in 2011 and the boss, triathlete Keri Serota, agreed to hire her on one condition: Danisewicz must attempt a triathlon. The 19-year-old Danisewicz — who had been an athlete but never a swimmer, runner or cyclist — swallowed hard and accepted the challenge.

She got the internship, but it was that first triathlon that forever changed her life. “I loved the feeling of crossing the finish line,” she says. “I went from being a cancer survivor and amputee to being a triathlete.”

She competed in more triathlons and improved, learning valuable lessons from Melissa Stockwell, who became her mentor. Two years after her triathlon debut, Danisewicz forged a new identity: world champion, when she beat Stockwell in the PT2 class at the 2013 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in London. 

Danisewicz had graduated from Northwestern and found part-time work as a development coordinator at Children’s Oncology Services, but decided to leave her job so she could commit to training full-time.

That commitment paid off with a breakout year in 2015, when Danisewicz won three major events — the Sunshine Coast ITU World Paratriathlon Event, Monterrey CAMTRI Triathlon American Championships and Rio de Janeiro ITU World Paratriathlon Event. More importantly, that dominance convinced her she was a legitimate contender for gold at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Until then, when I won a race, I thought it was a fluke,” she says. “I didn’t see myself as a real competitor.”

Indeed, she is. Her win in Rio last August made her the first American to earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team. At the Grand Final in Chicago, where Danisewicz lives, she took silver, finishing behind Allysa Seely and ahead of Stockwell for a U.S. podium sweep. 

At the Paralympics, where triathlon will make its debut, her teammate Seely and potentially other Americans, will be the 25-year-old Danisewicz’s main competition. Having won on the same course a year earlier gives Danisewicz an edge. “Knowing the feeling of crossing the finish line in first — I have been able to use that in my training,” she says. “I can visualize doing it again.”

Competing for a gold medal was not something Danisewicz could visualize as a young teenager when all she saw looking at her left leg was a limb ravaged by cancer and chemotherapy. It’s a testament to her bravery and inner fire that she was able to make the difficult decision at 14 to remove what held her back. That’s the moment that ultimately set her on the road to Rio. “I’m so much happier now without my leg,” she says. “(Having it amputated) is the thing that allowed me to live again.”

That makes the Paralympic Games about something much more than competition for her. It’s about this new life that she has found in the sport. With 13 family members accompanying her to Brazil, Danisewicz would like to win gold, but she is determined to enjoy the opportunity to be there. 

“Being able to share the experience with so many other athletes and represent my country for the first time in something so much bigger than me is an honor,” she says. “One of my goals is just to take in all of it, to savor every moment.”