Eva Houston Is As Confident As She’s Ever Been
by Steve Drumwright
After a very busy spring and summer, Eva Houston needed to relax, so she went home to Omaha, Nebraska, to hang out with family and friends. It was a deserved rest after a breakthrough summer performance for the wheelchair racer.
After participating in the inaugural national collegiate wheelchair championships at the Drake Relays in April and then graduating from the University of Illinois, Houston won a bronze medal in the women’s 800-meter T34 at the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships this July in Paris, a few days after just barely missing a bronze in the 100.
It has been quite a whirlwind experience for the 22-year-old, who made her international debut just two years ago at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Now, after additional intense competitions at the elite level, she is feeling more comfortable on the international stage.
“I think I left with a lot of confidence, and not because I won a medal,” Houston said. “It was because I had a plan and did it. I didn’t let race-day nerves get the best of me, and I just stayed calm and collected and that that was such a big confidence-booster. I feel like I could do anything in Paris (at the 2024 Paralympics).”
Planning is a big part of who Houston is, but it wasn’t until recently that she applied some of her school habits to her on-track performance. She used a combination of writing things down and visualizing what she wanted to do in certain situations.
“I’m definitely quite a big planner,” she said. “I do like to write things out, what I’m going through or even if it’s just a busy day. I like to plan. I think that implementing some of that into my race day just felt like, 'OK, this is how I handle other things, so this will work.'”
That newfound approach helped her on the track in Paris.
Two years ago in Tokyo, Houston finished sixth in the 800 and eighth in the 100. This year, in the 100, Houston finished second in her preliminary heat. Facing a tougher field in the final, Houston stuck to her plan and finished fourth in a personal-best time of 19.28 seconds — just 0.14 seconds behind bronze medalist Fabienne Andre of Great Britain.
“I kept my race strategy the same (from the prelim), just knowing that I’m pretty good at accelerating towards the middle and end of a race,” Houston said. “I was thrilled that I was able to keep up with some of those really, really fast girls with really good starts. I think that it was a really good trial run for hopefully what I can execute if I qualify for Paris.”
In the 800 three days later, Houston was brimming with confidence. She took the time between races to get inside the competitive minds of fellow competitors from Illinois and hone her plan. Houston got off to a good start and was in the initial pack of at least four competitors, just trailing Andre with another racer right behind Houston.
“I was afraid that I was going to get boxed in,” Houston said. “But at the first moment that I saw an opening, I just took it. I didn’t know where my competitors were so I just went as fast as I could. I thought that they’re right behind me, but that really pushed me. I was just afraid that I was going to get passed at the end there.”
But she wasn’t passed and crossed the finish line in 2 minutes, 8.74 seconds, ahead of Andre’s 2:13.30 to win a bronze medal.
“Honestly, stunned,” Houston said of her reaction when she looked at the scoreboard. “I couldn’t believe it. And then, obviously, the excitement and relief hit. But at first, I just really couldn’t believe that I executed my race plan. It was crazy.”
There are still things to improve in her performance. Most notably, her starts, particularly in the shorter 100 meters. Houston also plans to step things up in the weight room, she said.
In her quest to improve, she plans to lean on her coaches and teammates at Illinois.
“I’m thankful that I have a wonderful team here at U of I,” she said. “I don’t know what exercises to do to get stronger from here, but thankfully everybody else does. So I will just follow whatever I’m told to do and just go up with intention each day in those spaces to get stronger there.”
Houston will attempt to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics the following month at the New York City Marathon. Her confidence is at the right level, with her world championships performance showing that she both belongs among the elite and still has a little work to do to move up the podium.
“There’s definitely a shift in this year of energy on the (Illinois) team and I can really feel it,” Houston said of one of the top college programs. “I’m going to let that push me each day at practice. But I think in Paris (in 2024), I would love to get another bronze medal in the 800. I really feel strong in that event, and I definitely have my eyes on that bronze medal in the 100. I think that fourth-place finish was a little bit too close, so that would feel really, really good.”
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to usparatf.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.