By Amanda McGrory
Amanda McGrory is a 3-time Paralympian, including this year’s 2016 Rio Paralympics, where she will be competing in the marathon race. Making history, this is the first time the Paralympics will be aired on primetime TV, directly following the Olympic Games. We asked Amanda about her Paralympic experience, and what it means to Go for Gold.
You've competed so many times to get to this level of racing, but does it feel different, more reverent somehow to compete in the Olympics/Paralympics - such a historic global event?
This will actually be my third Paralympic Games. I competed in 2008 in Beijing and won 4 medals, and then followed that up with a disappointing performance in London in 2012. I came home empty-handed, and had a few tough years of racing after that, trying to figure out why the effort I was putting into training wasn't showing in my results. My coach and I made some changes over this past winter, and now I'm putting up some of the best times of my career.
That said, competing at the Games is an experience like no other. Each time is just as exhilarating as the first, and the energy surrounding the Games is indescribable. It's all anyone has been talking about for months, and for us athletes, it's what we've been training for, for YEARS. Not only is it a huge honor to be selected to represent your country, but the chance to compete against the world's best, and the potential to hear your national anthem play from the medal stand... it's just incredible.
This is the first year that the Paralympics will be broadcast on primetime TV - why do you think it took so long?!
For a long time, wheelchair and adapted sports have been stuck in a vicious cycle. Networks have been hesitant to broadcast Paralympic sports because they aren't sure there's any interest... but one of the major reasons why there is no interest is because the general public has no idea it even exists! The London Paralympic Games got a huge amount of coverage in the UK, and it was REALLY well received by viewers. I think that was encouraging to networks in other countries, so they're more willing to take the chance. As a Paralympic athlete, I can tell you first-hand that the excitement and energy surrounding the Paralympic Games, as well as the level of competition, is just as intense as the Olympics. Plus, it will finally give all my friends and family at home the chance to see me race!
What does a typical day of training look like for you, leading up to Rio?
We're in the midst of our last hard training cycle before the Games right now. It's generally about 9-10 sessions a week, with Sundays off. We're doing a lot of high-intensity track work, and following that up with some med ball and maintenance work in the gym. Most days I get up around 7am and have a light breakfast before our first training session at 8:15. After that, I have a little time off to head home for a bigger breakfast (I know, two breakfasts everyday. I am living the dream) and a shower, before getting a little work done. I'm a graduate student at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, so although I'm not taking classes over the summer, I do hold positions as a research assistant and a teaching assistant. I grab a snack after work and head to the gym for our second session, usually around 3pm. Depending on the day, I might head straight from the gym to the Information School to provide tech support for their online program. If not, I get to head home and make dinner with my boyfriend. Bedtime is usually around 10pm - I feel like I could stay up later when I was younger, but I really love sleeping.
How do you make sure that you stay focused and in the right headspace?
At this point in the season, it's all about confidence. Physically, every athlete competing at the Games is incredible, and the differences in conditioning/strength/talent are miniscule. I believe coming home with a medal and falling short often comes down to the mental side of things.
To stay in that strong, positive mental space, I try to focus on the things I can control, rather than those I can't. I can always tell I'm going to have a poor performance when I'm thinking about strengths of my competitors, and focusing on what they're doing, rather than my own race plan. Although I train with quite a few of my competitors everyday at the University of Illinois, I do my best to always concentrate on my workout and make sure I get the most out of it. Even on bad days, I try to find positives from the training session, and build on them for following sessions.
What was the biggest challenge in jumping from short speed races to marathon distance racing?
Surprisingly, I think the biggest challenge isn't the distance — it's the tactics. As a distance athlete at heart, I always have a pretty good endurance base, so it doesn't take too long to get ready into marathon shape. The biggest difference for me is always the way the race plays out. On the track, everything is equal. No hills, no tricky road conditions, steady turns... Moving onto the road brings in SO many more outside factors. The road really gives athletes an opportunity to race to their strengths and plan attacks in a different way than they can on the track. And, the longer distance gives you more time to set some of those attacks up.
It seems like every time someone has told you that you can't do something, you find a way to prove them wrong. Where do you turn - either outward or inward - for the source of your mental strength and dedication?
A huge amount of my success comes from being surrounded by amazing and supportive people. My parents made countless sacrifices when I was younger to first get me involved in sports, and then be sure I was at every competition possible. And now, at the University of Illinois, I get to call some of the best athletes in the world my teammates. Working out with them every day can sometimes be frustrating, but at the same time it is so motivating. There is always someone just a little bit faster for you to try and catch, and always someone right behind trying to do the same thing. Just being surrounded by such excellence pushes you to dig a little deeper, and use each other for inspiration.
Any advice for someone looking to take their athletic training to the next level?
I always like to tell aspiring Paralympians a story about my first season at the University of Illinois. I came out of the under-18 competitions as the top junior athlete in the country. Feeling pretty tough, I entered my first round of races with the elite adult women, and I GOT DESTROYED. Like, I nearly got lapped in a 1500m. It was so bad, I convinced my coach to let me go back to Junior Nationals for one final year, so I could beat up on some little kids and feel better about myself.
Moral of the story here is to stick with it. Some days will suck, but in the end, hard work pays off.
Amanda McGrory has been one of the top wheelchair marathoners on the international scene over the last decade. She won the 2011 New York City Marathon and broke the event record by more than two and a half minutes. That same year, she won the London and Paris Marathons only one week apart, and she earned the bronze medal in the IPC Athletics World Championships Marathon that summer. She also won her debut New York City Marathon in 2006, and has placed in the top four in New York seven times. Find the New York Road Runners at www.nyrr.org
It all started with a bribe. Amanda McGrory thought of herself as a sprinter. She raced the short stuff and she was good at it. Former American marathon champion Scot Hollonbeck disagreed. He looked at Amanda, her lean physique, endless supply of energy, and flawless technique, and saw a marathoner. Hollonbeck made a deal with Amanda. If she raced the 2006 Colfax Marathon in Denver, Colorado he would invite her to his world-class training camp. Hollonbeck had a hunch Amanda would be a good marathoner, but little did he know she would become the best in the world.
At the age of five, Amanda’s life turned in a drastically new direction when she was diagnosed with a rare disease called transverse myelitis, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Always an energetic toddler, the Philadelphia-area native immediately adapted to life in a wheelchair and began a quest to find ways to be active at a high level. After an extensive rehabilitation program, Amanda attended a Variety Club camp in southeastern Pennsylvania, where a new sports program was starting up for children with disabilities. It was there, at the age of 10, that her parents enrolled her in a wheelchair sports program, and began her love affair with the sport of wheelchair racing.
Today Amanda is a 3-time Paralympian, and will be competing in this year’s 2016 Rio Paralympics.