Podium sweep, nine medals highlight Team USA’s blistering start to 2023 Parapan American Games
by Kristen Gowdy
SANTIAGO, CHILE – Team USA opened the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 with a momentous first day that saw veteran athletes and newcomers alike contribute to nine podium performances. A podium sweep, a double podium, and four Parapan Am titles set the tone for Team USA as competition got underway in Chile.
The Americans were led by gold medals from three-time Parapan Am champion Hannah Dederick (Mead, Washington), as well as Parapan Ams rookies Evan Correll (Waukee, Iowa), Ryan Medrano (Savannah, Georgia) and Leo Merle (Folsom, California).
Earning Team USA’s first podium sweep of the Parapan American Games was the trio of Correll, Miguel Jimenez-Vergara (Lawrenceville, New Jersey) and Phillip Croft (Spokane, Washington), who took gold, silver and bronze, respectively, in the men’s 5000-meter T54 race.
The three wheelchair racers broke out early and were able to work together as a unit to pull away from the field. It was only in the final lap of the race that Correll put space between himself and Jimenez-Vergara, showcasing the depth of men’s wheelchair racing in the United States. All three athletes are making their Parapan Ams debuts, and the bronze medalist Croft said it was extra special to share the podium with his teammates.
“It’s huge,” he said. “You’re not just by yourself up there, you’re with all of your teammates, and that’s a blessing. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to represent the U.S.”
Correll, meanwhile, earns the first major international title of his budding career. The 20-year-old University of Illinois student-athlete most recently was the third American man to cross the line at the TCS New York City Marathon earlier this month, just missing the opportunity to qualify for his first Paralympic Games. He will have another chance at next summer’s U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Team Trials.
To win his first international medal, he said, was an honor.
“I’m very happy to be out here,” Correll said. “This is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. Just to be here representing Team USA is incredibly special.”
The trio of wheelchair racers didn’t stop with the 5000-meter, however. In a packed day for Correll, Croft, and Jimenez-Vergara, the three also competed in the preliminary heats of the 800-meter T54 race, and all three qualified for tomorrow’s final.
Tokyo Paralympian Dederick added her third career Parapan American Games title after a dominant victory in the women’s 400-meter T54. The 21-year-old, who specializes in sprints, topped the field by nearly 2.5 seconds en route to gold. American teammate Chelsea Stein (Spring, Texas) placed sixth in her Parapan Ams debut.
“This is a perfect way to end an amazing year of racing. This has leveled up my expectations and my goals for myself. All of the hard work this year really paid off, and I’m really happy about where I’m at heading into the next year and Paris 2024.”
For Dederick, who still has three events on her plate in Santiago and is looking to qualify for her second Paralympic Games next summer, the win gave her confidence.
“It gives me the ability to know I can go really hard and go at full strength,” she said. “My goals for the rest of the competition are just to have fun and enjoy the moment. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Also bringing home gold for Team USA was Medrano, whose first podium performance comes less than a year after he began competing in track and field. Medrano made his first world championships appearance in July after discovering Para track and field through his participation in CBS’ Survivor alongside track and field Paralympian Noelle Lambert.
Medrano’s time of 51.14 in the men’s 400-meter T38 was a Parapan American Games record, the first of the competition in track and field for Team USA.
“I feel spectacular,” Medrano said. “I feel like my coach really gave me the program and I was able to go out there and execute. I really felt like the performance would determine the outcome, and that’s what happened.”
After just missing the podium at world championships over the summer, Merle found redemption and the top of the podium in the men’s 1500-meter T38 competition.
The medal is the first of Merle’s international career.
“I learned from my first 400 [at world championships in Paris] that if I push and continue pushing, I tend to get a good time,” he said. “I’m not trying to beat other people, I’m trying to beat myself. I need to set the standard high for myself so I can continue to win.”
Merle pulled out to the front of the pack early and never looked back, fending off Canada’s Liam Stanley in the final lap to pull out a one-second victory. Merle said he felt comfortable the entire race, and played to his strength when he sped up at the end to hold off Stanley.
“It was just so important to make it as comfortable as possible for myself,” Merle said. “I really enjoy that slow to fast pace, that breakneck change, and so this was exactly what I wanted.”
The 1500-meter competition is Merle’s only event in Santiago, and he leaves a Parapan American champion.
“It means the world,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling and an amazing accomplishment, and I really can’t thank my coach enough for all of the training.”
Earning another double podium for Team USA was newcomer Tahmar Upshaw (Murfreesboro, Tennessee) and Paralympian Rayven Sample (Jamestown, New York), who were neck-and-neck in the men’s 400-meter T47 en route to silver and bronze. After Sample established an early lead, Upshaw was able to inch ahead of his teammate in the final meters, edging him by .01 seconds.
It is Upshaw’s international debut and first time representing Team USA. He is brand new to Para sport after his collegiate track coach at Cumberland University introduced him to adaptive athletics.
“This is my first Games, and I was nervous before,” Upshaw said. “I’m normally an 800-meter runner, so there was some anxiety heading into this race. I was able to bring it home and catch up to Rayven.”
Sample was the only T45 athlete racing against T46 and T47 classes.
“Coming off a bad year last year, I do feel like [I’m] back,” Sample said. “I am just super excited to get any time here and medal here. We have the whole indoor season and whole outdoor season coming up.”
Both Upshaw and Sample run at the NCAA level – Sample is a member of the varsity track and field team at Bucknell University – and after their race, spoke about the importance of Para representation in college sports.
“It’s an awesome experience,” Upshaw said. “I’m hoping I can spread the word and let other people know this is out here. You also have the same opportunity to run at university. Your disability does not stop you from doing what you want to do.”
“Para athletes have really succeeded in the NCAA and I really hope in the next five or 10 years we start to see more Para athletes in the NCAA,” Sample said. “It’s easy to see the stats on the able-bodied side, so many Olympians come from the NCAA, so hopefully very, very soon we start seeing that on the Para side.”
Competing in his second Parapan Ams, Noah Scherf (Michigan City, Indiana) battled to a silver medal, the first major international medal of his career. The Earlham College cross-country alum posted a time of 16:17.00 to finish behind only Roman Moreta of Ecuador.
It is Scherf’s first international competition since 2019, when he competed at both the world championships and Parapan Ams.
“Anytime you race at one of these, it’s a big deal, and you just want to make people proud,” Scherf said. “Obviously I would have wanted to win, but I’m never going to complain about a silver, I’m happy with that.”
After drafting off Moreta until the midpoint of the race, Scherf maintained the silver medal position before dropping back into the third place position behind Brazilian Silvado De Souza. It was only in the final 600 meters of the race that Scherf surged to overtake the Brazilian and finish in silver. In his Parapan Ams debut, teammate Caleb Howard (Lakeview, Oregon) placed just off the podium in fourth place.
“Coming in, training has been pretty up and down for me,” Scherf said. “I didn’t know where I was, fitness-wise. Went out pretty quick in the first mile or so, and I was feeling that in the middle of the race. I was happy I was able to find something in that last 600 or so to chase down De Souza, because he’s a really good runner. ”
At his fourth Parapan Ams, two-time Paralympian Markeith Price (Baltimore, Maryland) snagged the bronze medal in the men’s javelin throw F13. Price said it was his first time competing in javelin – he has previously competed in long jump and sprinting events at the Paralympic and world championship level.
“This is a new event for me, I’ve done almost every event that my class could do,” Price said. “It’s a new journey for me, and I really want to dial it in in the next four or five months. I’m feeling good and ready to go for next year.”
More important to Price though was the respect his teammates showed by electing him one of the team captains, alongside Lacey Henderson, earlier in the week. To showcase veteran leadership and guide the younger athletes, he said, has been fulfilling.
“I finally am at that point in my career and have some maturity, and it’s my turn to show the newer athletes the ropes,” he said. “I have so many ways to help them feel at peace, because it’s tough sometimes. It’s a true honor to be at my fourth Parapan Games. We have a lot of young talent out there.”
Other notable U.S. finishes include a duo of fourth places from Shahrad Nasajpour (Tuscon, Arizona) in the men’s discus F37 and Marshall Zackery (Ocala, Florida) in the men’s 200-meter T35. For Nasajpour, a former member of the Refugee Paralympic Team, representing the United States for the first time was emotional.
“Representing a new country today was awesome for me, and I’m proud,” Nasajpour said. “It’s something that I haven’t had in the past 10 years, now I have a new country, a new home.”
In addition to Correll, Croft and Jimenez-Vergara qualifying through the semi-finals to tomorrow’s 800-meter T54 race, Team USA’s Madison Hahs (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania) was able to earn a spot in the women’s 400-meter T38 finals and will compete in tomorrow’s session.
Track and field competition resumes Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. local time with the second day of the sport at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023. Follow U.S. Paralympics Track & Field on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for Team USA updates and results.
For media requests and photo inquiries, please contact Kristen Gowdy at Kristen.Gowdy@usopc.org.
Team USA Medals – November 21
Evan Correll – men’s 5000-meter T53-54
Hannah Dederick – women’s 400-meter T53-54
Ryan Medrano – men’s 400-meter T38
Leo Merle – men’s 1500-meter T38
Miguel Jimenez-Vergara – men’s 5000-meter T54
Noah Scherf – men’s 5000-meter T13
Tahmar Upshaw – men’s 400-meter T47
Phillip Croft – men’s 5000-meter T54
Markeith Price – men’s javelin F13
Rayven Sample – men’s 400-meter T47
Other Team USA Results
Caleb Howard – 4th, men’s 5000-meter T13
Shahrad Nasajpour – 4th, men’s discus F37
Marshall Zackery – 4th, men’s 200-meter T35
Nicholas McCoy – 5th, men’s 400-meter T52
Kasey Nickel – 5th, women’s shot put F35-37
Matthew Paintin – 5th, men’s 200-meter T35
Emily Lopez – 6th, women’s long jump T47
Chelsea Stein – 6th, women’s 400-meter T53-54
Janie Richardson – 7th, women’s shot put F35-37; prelims, women’s 400-meter T38;
Austin Spalla – 7th, men’s 200-meter T35
Margaret Beaudoin – 8th, women’s shot put F35-37
Evan Correll – finals, men’s 800-meter T53-54
Phillip Croft – finals, men’s 800-meter T53-54
Madison Hahs – finals, women’s 400-meter T38
Miguel Jimenez-Vergara – finals, men’s 800-meter T53-54
Jason Robinson – prelims, men’s 800-meter T54
Taylor Talbot – prelims, women’s 200-meter T12