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To her classmates at Jamestown High School, Alexa Halko is just another student sauntering from class to class, socializing in the hallways, eating lunch with her peers and generally doing everything one might expect from a high school sophomore.
When the school day is over, however, Halko engages in a hobby that sets her apart from the other students at Jamestown.
Halko, 15, suffers from cerebral palsy and has limited use of her legs. Unable to run, Halko still finds a way to participate in track and field by using a special Top End wheelchair that assists steering around a track.
With her racing wheelchair, Halko is able to train with the Jamestown track and field team in the spring and even train on trails and other hilly surfaces. But Halko is not an ordinary varsity athlete: She is one of the top female wheelchair racers in the world.
On Oct. 22, Halko set an American record in the women’s T34 100-meter with a time of 18.55 in Doha, Qatar during the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. While in Qatar, she took second place in the 100-meter and 400 meter, as well as fourth in the 800-meter.
Halko also holds American records in the women’s T34 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter and is a top-five ranked athlete in the world in her T34 class.
Paralympic sports are broken up into classes depending on an athlete’s disability, of which there are varying degrees of severity. The T34 class in which Halko competes is reserved for seated athletes with athetosis, ataxia or hypertonia.
Competing in a smaller Paralympic classification, Halko has had trouble finding competitors in the U.S. and often competes internationally for stiffer competition.
That desire for competition is what sent Halko to Qatar for three weeks in October; it’s what has driven her to train as hard as she has for the past eight years; and it’s what will push her to compete for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the 2016 Paralympic Games.
“Since I was eight I knew about the Paralympics and have wanted to go to Rio,” Halko said. “I’ve kind of been looking toward Rio for a while.”
Halko’s road to Rio dates back to when she was 7 years old and living in Oklahoma. As a child looking to remain active while in a wheelchair, Halko began playing wheelchair basketball through the Greater Oklahoma Disables Sports Association.
Years later, Halko picked up track and field and instantly connected with the sport. While Halko walks slowly and with some difficulty during her day-to-day life, track and field provides Halko an opportunity to live life in the fast lane — literally.
Halko moved to Williamsburg nearly two years ago, and has been training since January with Lafayette Cross-Country Coach Drew Mearns, whom Halko credits significantly for her growth as an athlete.
“He doesn’t just focus on your workouts and how they can help you race, he also helps you with the mental part,” she said of Mearns, who also manages the Growing Runners Track Club in Williamsburg.
Training with Mearns has provided Halko an opportunity to train with her peers, which is hard to do as a Paralympian given the talent gap.
Instead of having Halko train with other Paralympians, Mearns has created a practice system that allows Halko to train with other top distance runners in the region like Tabb’s Lindsey Blanks and Lafayette’s Delaney Savedge.
Mearns believes the training has been beneficial for all parties involved, and Halko’s results over the past 11 months seem to support his claims.
“Alexa’s participation with some of the best girls on the Peninsula who are not Paralympians has been a real benefit for our girls, and I know both socially and otherwise for Alexa,” he said. “It’s really one of the challenges that super elite athletes have in running, and probably doubly for Paralympics. You don’t get a chance to be around many of your equals.”
And while Halko was modest about her chances at making the U.S. Paralympic team and getting to compete in the 2016 Summer Paralympics, Mearns was not as bashful in setting a high bar for his standout pupil.
“I think with certainty she’ll make the team,” he said confidently.