Through Athletics, Alicia Guerrero Stays Connected With Her Indigenous Roots
by Al Daniel
Alicia Guerrero competes in shot put. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Guerrero)
Alicia Guerrero loves company. Historically, she has more of it than she thought. Looking ahead, she aims to accumulate more.
The first year F64 thrower on the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team is a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. The nation, headquartered in the California community of Smith River on the Oregon border, previously produced two accomplished collegiate athletes.
Between 1969 and 1972, Joe Giovannetti set 17 middle-distance running records for Humboldt State University’s (now California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt) track program. Drew Roberts was the HSU football team’s sole three-time All-American and a 1963 NFL Draft pick.
But that was more than a half-century ago. Guerrero, who grew up around Yakama territory in Wapato, Washington, admits she had not heard of those Tolowa Dee-ni’ athletic forebears.
One thing she has always known, though, is that “My heritage is filled with loving, powerful and resilient people.”
Guerrero has shown that resilience herself. After losing her left leg in a lawn mowing accident at age 2, she received prosthetic limbs from a medical team that planted a long-term interest in biology, her current college major.
She also absorbed what she calls an “amazing” work ethic from her parents.
“Without that, I wouldn’t have the leadership skills I currently have, along with the ability to interact with people,” she said.
Those assets were most evident when she rose to be student council president at Wapato High School.
“As a racial minority with a disability, having the position was uncommon for someone like me,” she said. “There were not a lot of minorities similar to me to set an example of what disabled Natives can do.”
Through that role, she said she developed her ability to speak with and make connections with all kinds of people.
At the same time and place, Guerrero grew as a person through sports as well.
“My mother pushed me to participate in sports,” she said, “especially basketball, since it is very prominent in the Native community.”
Until she reached high school, sports were strictly about fun, fitness and friendship.
In addition to both able-bodied and wheelchair hoops, which is a still a staple in her life, Guerrero played softball and volleyball, and also pursued gymnastics. But track and field was where she started turning heads.
“With athletics,” she said, “I gained another outlet to form connections, which is a large part of Native American culture.”
That capacity for connections went national in a hurry. Guerrero first crossed the Para national team’s radar as a freshman at Wapato, where her 20.45-meter discus throw at the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association championships placed her on the 2018 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field High School All-American roster.
“It warmed my heart to receive this recognition,” she said, “because growing up I did not have someone who was able to represent people with my exact identity.”
A sophomore surge followed. Guerrero returned to the national honor roll in 2019 with a 27.78-meter discus thrust plus a 19.79-meter javelin landing. She set state records in both of those events, plus the shot put.
Two subsequent championship cancellations due to the pandemic barred her from building on those marks. Nonetheless, the established recognition was reverberating.
“I still remember, after that first state championship meet, I had some people coming up to me months after because they saw me compete,” Guerrero said. “I also had coaches who told me that fellow students with disabilities started to show interests in sports and in pursuing their athletic dreams.”
Via scholarship, she has since followed her own ambitions to the University of Illinois, where she is a sophomore on the wheelchair basketball team and competing as a thrower on the track and field team.
“I am currently the only thrower within the program, but I am hoping for the field side to grow,” she said. “I have received a lot of support from Illinois wheelchair athletics, so I am excited to be training.”
Just as the support in Champaign echoes Wapato, Guerrero’s groundbreaking tendencies keep reaching prospective fans in every corner of the country.
Tribal Adaptive, a foundation established in 2015 for disabled Native American athletes, introduced its student-athlete of the year award in 2021. Guerrero was the first recipient in the women’s category.
“I never thought someone like me from my background could be able to do something like leaving the reservation to go to school 2,000 miles away, much less being named to the national team,” Guerrero said.
“To be where I am now, I am hoping others with a similar background to mine can use my experiences as an example of the possibilities in life when you go for your dreams.”