NewsErik Hightower

Erik Hightower Is Happy With His Track And Field Career

by Stuart Lieberman

Erik Hightower competes at the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Team Trials. (Photo by Getty Images)

In Erik Hightower’s final meet as a competitive wheelchair racer last year, he set a personal-best of 49.37 seconds in the 400-meter in Chula Vista, California.

“It was a cool way to go out,” he said. “I ended on a good note.”

The 37-year-old officially announced his retirement this summer after a career that led him to three Paralympics, five world championships and four Parapan American Games.

“When you know, you know,” he said. “I just woke up one day and was like I’m happy with the time I’ve got and it’s time. I’m getting older — older than a lot of the athletes I compete with. I’m competing against kids that are getting younger and younger and faster and faster.”

Hightower once held the Americas record in the 100-meter T54 and was part of the gold-medal winning 4x100 universal relay at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. He won eight medals at the Parapan American Games, including gold in the 100 in 2011 and the 4x100 universal relay in 2019.

Born with spina bifida, Hightower grew up in Phoenix, where he started wheelchair racing when he was 8 after his parents learned about the sport at a Spina Bifida Association conference.

“I absolutely hated it,” Hightower said after first trying out the sport. “They had to bribe me with money, animals, pretty much anything they could think of just to get me to stick with it for a little bit. A few years later when I finally won my first race is when I realized I could be good at this, and it’s been history ever since.”

Early in his career, Hightower relied on his natural talent and trained twice a week. That led him to compete at his first world championships in 2006 and first Paralympics in 2008.

That strategy eventually had diminishing returns, however, as Hightower failed to make Team USA for the London 2012 Paralympics. Knowing he needed to change his approach to the sport, Hightower moved to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center to train six days per week with limited distractions. He set new personal bests nearly every single year there and went on to finish seventh in the 100 at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. At 35, he competed in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, which proved to be his last major international meet.

During that time, Hightower noticed the Paralympic Movement skyrocket in terms of record-setting TV viewership, media coverage and sponsorship growth.

“It’s definitely come a long way,” he said. “One of the biggest things that sticks out to me is the media — we are finally getting on TV and showing the world who we actually are and not just being seen in YouTube videos. Nobody really knew what the Paralympics were back in 2004 at my first international meet. Over the last 20 years seeing it all grow, it’s cool that we are finally getting recognized for all the hard work we do.”

Hightower, who has also served as a coach for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, is now back in Arizona with his family. He plans to work part time at the Arizona Cardinals’ State Farm Stadium before he “finds his next calling,” which he hopes will be in sports.

With Hightower now able to fully look back on his competitive career, his main advice to up and coming racers — or anyone with ambitious dreams — is to be patient and persistent. 

“Never give up on your dreams, no matter how tough they are,” he said. “Things are going to get difficult in life, but you’ve just got to face them and set goals. You don’t have to accomplish them that week or that month, but you have to set them and work hard and not give up.”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to USParaTrackandField on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.