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Amanda McGrory and Adam Bleakney: Inside the University of Illinois’ Powerhouse Wheelchair Racing Program

Of the athletes competing in the professional wheelchair athlete field at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 6, twelve regularly train together as part of the prestigious University of Illinois wheelchair racing program.

Together, training under four-time Paralympian Adam Bleakney, the contingent that’s heading from Champaign to New York City has amassed 37 Paralympic medals and 33 major marathon titles.

“It’s got to be something about all of the straight country roads out in the cornfields,” joked Amanda McGrory, a two-time New York City Marathon champion and seven-time Paralympic medalist.

The University of Illinois’ wheelchair racing program dates back to 1948, when Timothy Nugent wanted men returning from World War II with injuries to have an outlet for becoming active again. By 1980, the program began to focus on competitive sports, becoming a hub for technology, research, and advancement in wheelchair athletics.

The program has a legacy of producing profound wheelchair racers decade after decade, including Sharon Hedrick, Jean Driscoll, and Shawn Meredith.

In addition to McGrory, the current marathon roster includes four-time New York City Marathon winner and 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden, along with 2015 TCS New York City Marathon runner-up and five-time Paralympic medalist Josh George.

At the Rio 2016 Paralympics, the Fighting Illini accounted for 16 of the United States’ 42 track and field medals.

“I’m not sure there’s anyone else in this world that has a training group like we have,” McGrory said. “We have athletes of all different speeds and all different strengths, so every day there’s someone right ahead of you who you’re trying to catch, and someone right behind you trying to catch you.”

Bleakney coaches his athletes “in the trenches,” as he still competes himself and will be racing the TCS New York City Marathon alongside many of them.

“You connect with them in a different way than if you were always sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “My goal is to make each athlete independent, creating entrepreneurs so they’re able to make their training decisions on a daily basis that will best serve them. I’d rather have 25 independent entrepreneurs on my team than 25 drones or soldiers that have to wait for my orders to move.”

McGrory, who developed paraplegia at age 5 after receiving an allergy shot that inflamed her spinal cord, has an athlete pathway that aligns directly with Bleakney’s coaching pathway.

McGrory enrolled at the University of Illinois in 2004, just before Bleakney picked up the coaching reigns of the wheelchair program; at the time, the program had only six athletes.

Bleakney talked her into doing her first marathon in 2006, and later that same year she would end up competing in her first New York City Marathon, which she called the “Holy Grail” of marathons.

Upon arriving in New York City, McGrory was told, “We’re glad to have you here. You’ve had some pretty impressive performances. But no one wins the New York City Marathon their first time. So go out, take in the course, come back next year, and you may have a good shot at winning.”

McGrory was steadfast; she refused to listen. Instead, she went out and won.

Then in 2011, after she won the London and Paris marathons a week apart in the spring, she broke what was then the New York City Marathon event record by more than two and half minutes en route to her second five-borough title.

Despite her success in 2011 and her three medals at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, McGrory whittled under pressure at the London 2012 Paralympics, failing to make the podium.

She found her groove again at the Rio 2016 Games, changing the shape of her gloves, seated position, and stroke mechanics until everything clicked again. She won three medals in Rio, including a bronze in the marathon.

She claps her hands for Bleakney at that.

“Adam is pretty low key and hates special attention,” McGrory said. “He’s super humble and doesn’t like to take credit for a lot of the achievements, but he’s built an incredible program and is well on his way to becoming one of the most successful coaches in the history of wheelchair racing.”

She adds: “We have such a great training group here and training under Adam that none of us want to leave to go anywhere else. It’s kind of our fault that the team ended up so big. Lots of wheelchair racers come to Illinois, but none of us ever seem to leave.”

By Stuart Lieberman

GET YOUR STORIES ON. Read more inspiring stories from runners chronicling their journeys to the TCS New York City Marathon starting line.

TUNE IN. The 2016 TCS New York City Marathon will be televised live on Sunday, November 6, on WABC-TV, Channel 7 in the New York tri-state area from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET, and for the rest of the nation on ESPN2 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET.