Jason Robinson Blazes A Trail, On And Off The Track
by Lynn Rutherford
Jason Robinson competes at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Team Trials in June 2021. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Jason Robinson is more than an overachiever. He’s a trailblazer.
The 19-year-old from Rome, New York, was diagnosed with a rare form of spina bifida at birth. He competed for the first time when he was 4 in a kids’ event run alongside the Boilermaker 15K, a USATF-certified foot and wheelchair race held annually in nearby Utica.
“It was just a quarter mile, you could do it in your everyday chair,” Robinson said. “They would have some of the pro wheelchair racers come, and I got to meet some of them. I remember Josh George, Susannah Scaroni — people I now get to train with every day at the University of Illinois.”
That day sealed Robinson’s fate; he was a racer.
Five or so years later, his fourth-grade classmates held a fundraiser to buy Robinson his first racing wheelchair. After 12 weeks of training, he entered the 15K. At 10, he was the youngest person to ever compete in the Boilermaker’s wheelchair division.
“It’s my life, I can do whatever I want, and I’m going to do the 15k,” he told CNY Central, a local news station.
As the years went on, Robinson’s matter-of-fact determination grew. He joined the North Jersey Navigators, an adaptive sports team for junior athletes with disabilities, and competed at national junior events. In 2018, he raised more than $2,500 on his own to travel to the IWAS World Youth Games in Ireland.
“It ties back to the community surrounding me — I really didn't have a problem with being able to fundraise,” he said. “That was one of my dreams at the time, and the people in my community did a fantastic job supporting me. I'm very grateful for them.”
Soon after, Robinson worked to make another dream come true: racing with his Westmoreland High School track team. Some of his Navigators teammates competed on their school’s teams, but they lived in New Jersey. No wheelchair students raced in New York state public schools.
“So we figured, why not try to push for that and see if we can get that in New York state?” Robinson said. “We really wanted to (do it), not just for me, but so other kids could come out to a local track meet and see what wheelchair racing is and know that it’s possible to race for their high schools, as well.”
Robinson and his parents, Erin and James, contacted their school district’s athletic director, and with his help lobbied the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the official body in charge of codes, rules and regulations for the state’s high schools.
“For a few years, we talked to the state, had the rule set up and I got the boundaries (set), so that it would be possible,” Jason said. “Thankfully, by my freshman year (2018) I was able to race and then compete at the state level and continue around the state.”
Robinson's racing times did not count for placements, because his wheelchair is considered an advantage. For other track and field events, though — shot put, for example — wheelchair athlete scores could count.
“Again, the community around me really helped me a lot,” Robinson said. “I feel like some people were hesitant at first because it was an unknown thing. But once everyone realized that it was safe, and that it was just another opportunity for kids to participate in sports, I think everyone was kind of was on board.”
Now a sophomore at Illinois, Robinson trains under esteemed coach Adam Bleakney and alongside Paralympians Scaroni, Daniel Romanchuk, Aaron Pike, Brian Siemann and others, while he pursues a degree in bioengineering.
“My neurosurgeon back home, he really got me interested (in biomechanics),” he said. “I’ve been good at math and science throughout school and I just enjoyed it.”
On a typical weekday, Robinson rises at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and heads out to practice by 7:30 to push on the track or on the road along with 10 to 15 other athletes. A few hours later, he heads to class until 2 or 3 p.m. From there, it’s time for homework and, time permitting, hanging out with friends.
“It is a little bit of a rigorous degree, but I think training keeps me on top of my game when it comes to school, too, since I don’t really have time to slack off or not get an assignment done,” he said. “The student part of ‘student-athlete’ comes first.”
When it comes to competing, Robinson specializes in longer-distance races
“On track, my favorite is probably the 15k. I’m not much of a sprinter,” he said.
Robinson competed in the TCS New York City Marathon in early November (he placed 31st in the men’s wheelchair division, with a time of 2:09:16) and has also raced in the Chicago and Boston marathons.
“Next season, I think we have a very busy schedule with the spring marathons, and hopefully try to make a world championships team,” he said.
His top goal is to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.
“I competed at the Paralympics trials in 2021 and I didn’t make the team but it was a good experience to be there and learn, so in the future I have a better shot,” Robinson said. “I know what to do, and I just have to go there and race.”