Clinching A Paralympic Berth Never Gets Old For Veterans Of The Games
by Lynn Rutherford
On an idyllic Sunday morning at the New York City Marathon, Team USA’s top four wheelchair racers became the first Americans to punch their tickets to the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.
Daniel Romanchuk, Aaron Pike, Susannah Scaroni and Tatyana McFadden all qualified for the Games as they were the top two U.S. finishers in the men’s and women’s wheelchair divisions, respectively.
Between them, the four athletes have competed in 17 Paralympics. Yet for each, the thrill of qualifying for the Summer Games only grows stronger with time.
“It means so much,” Scaroni, 32, said. “As an American, I feel energy, I feel recognized like a professional athlete in the U.S., and it is largely because of how well the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has done, (how well) title sponsors for major marathons have done, in showcasing athletes. To get to be where I am this time is really an honor and makes me happy for the next generation coming up.”
Paris will be Scaroni’s fourth appearance at the Paralympics. At the Tokyo Games, she won a gold in the 5,000-meter and bronze in the 800-meter T54.
Scaroni, who won in New York last year, ranked third on Sunday with a time of 1:48:14. Two Swiss racers, Catherine Debrunner, and Manuela Schär, placed first and second with times of 1:39:32 — which broke Scaroni’s course record from a year ago — and 1:47:54, respectively.
In the six World Marathon Majors this season, the women have had four different winners: Schär (Tokyo), Scaroni (Boston), DeBrunner (Berlin, New York, Chicago) and Australian Madison de Rozario (London).
The competition energizes Scaroni, who thrives on the challenge of going against the world’s best.
“I love that in all of the women’s races this whole series, there is not someone you could pinpoint and say, ‘Oh, that’s who is going to win the race,’” the Tekoa, Washington, native, said. “And I love that people today, on a hilly course that separated the field, were still willing to go as hard as they could.”
Romanchuk, 25, who lives and trains in Champaign, Illinois, placed second to Marcel Hug of Switzerland, clocking in at 1:30:07 to Hug’s 1:25:29. Dutchman Jetze Plat was third with a time of 1:34:22. The trio finished in the same order in New York last year.
“I’m thankful to God for the opportunities I’ve had, thankful to be able to race here,” an emotional Romanchuk said after crossing the finish line at West 67th Street.
Romanchuk, who won the event in 2018 at age 20, told reporters before the race that he looked forward to climbing the course’s famous hills, including the opening hill in Staten Island leading to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, but felt he would be challenged in the downhill portions of the course.
As it turned out, Romanchuk was right on the money. After leading six-time New York winner Hug early in the race, he trailed the Swiss the rest of the way.
“The pack broke up a little bit on the first hill,” he said. “I kind of was alone up to the top of the Verrazzano, went with Marcel a little while, and then just kept a good pace, a pace I know I can do, but I tried to push myself a little bit.”
For Pike, the day was particularly exciting as the six-time Paralympian placed fourth with a time of 1:39:58 and earned his qualification to Paris.
“This course is the toughest course of all the world marathons,” Pike said. “It will always take it all out of you, and today, it took everything I had to keep the pace up in order to qualify to go to Paris.”
Like the other top racers, Pike trains in Champaign under head coach Adam Bleakney. The 37-year-old Pike, who is originally from Park Rapids, Minnesota, calls the training group there his “everything.”
“(Evan Correll) was not far behind me, he was within distance,” Pike said. “There are a lot of up-and-comers, there are a lot of fast kids I’m training with now at University of Illinois, nipping at my heels. … I am aware of how fast they are. I never took it for granted.”
Paris will mark the seventh Games for Pike, who has competed in three Summer Games in wheelchair racing and three Winter Games as a Nordic skier.
“When it comes down to qualifying, when you are sitting at the start line, this is the point where you need to make it happen,” he said. “It’s just as cool, I still have just as much fun as when I started, or I wouldn’t still be doing it.”
McFadden, a five-time winner in New York, placed sixth on Sunday with a time of 1:53:31. Paris will be her seventh Paralympics, and her sixth Summer Games.
“I did the job, coming in as the second American, punching that ticket,” McFadden, 34, said. “I started (the course) really, really strong, and I know I need to work on my descending. But I’m proud of myself, I hung in there. It’s been a really great season.”
Since being diagnosed with a blood-clotting ailment in 2017, the 20-time Paralympic medalist has been fighting her way back into contention in the marathon.
“You never know what life is going to hand you,” McFadden said. “That road to recovery has been really tough; it’s been a mental battle staying in the game. The women are so fierce. To remain in the top four in the world is huge, because I was 14th, and now I’m fourth (in overall ranking). It’s been an incredible journey, especially since Tokyo.”
All four qualifiers expressed gratitude at being named to the Paris team early, saying it was not only a mental weight off of their shoulders, but a significant help in finalizing their training plans.
“It’s really great to finish on a note like this for the season,” Romanchuk said. “It’s great for Adam (Bleakney’s) training plan, he doesn’t have to worry about us peaking (too soon) again. … At this point, (I’m) heading into a training block, get some solid training through the winter, maybe work on some equipment stuff. Just get ready for the next year.”
Lynn Rutherford is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a contributor to usparatandf.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.