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Inside the Michael A. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, a strong headwind whipped down the back stretch of the rubberized track.
Alexa Halko, a 15-year-old sophomore at Jamestown High School, sat in her Top End racing wheelchair before the start of the T34 800-meter during the Fast Cow Invitational & Indy International on June 4.
The T34 800-meter is Halko’s best event and the Fast Cow Invitational & Indy International is one of her favorite meets to race. However, Halko wasn’t sure whether she would be able to generate enough power with her arms to cut through the gusting winds.
Halko’s racing glove-covered hands gripped the outer rims of her wheels as she leaned forward and began pumping her arms, sending her wheelchair into motion off the starting line. Once up to speed, Halko fell into her typical rhythm of uninterrupted pumping, down the straights of the track, quickly adjusting the steering mechanism on the front of her wheelchair to maneuver through the turns without losing speed.
Minutes later — two minutes and 2.74 seconds to be exact — Halko was stunned to learn she had set a world record in the event, with an average speed of almost 15 miles per hour. The event record was previously held by notable Great Britain Paralympian Hannah Cockroft, who posted a time of 2:04.84 in August 2015.
“It’s still mind boggling,” Halko said weeks later about holding a world record at such a young age. “I can’t really wrap my mind around it.”
For Halko, who will be competing for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, setting a world record was the latest accomplishment in her already storied career.
Overcoming the Odds
Halko suffers from cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that limits muscle coordination, balance and body movement, and has limited use of her legs. Halko is unable to run and struggles to walk for prolonged periods of time, which is of particular annoyance while navigating the crowded halls of Jamestown during the school year.
With a passion for competition, Halko, then seven years old and living in Oklahoma, began playing wheelchair basketball through the Greater Oklahoma Disabled Sports Association. Years later, Halko transitioned into wheelchair track and field and immediately fell in love with the feeling of going fast, something she doesn’t get to experience in her day-to-day life.
A couple years after moving to Williamsburg in 2013, Halko began training with Lafayette Cross-Country Coach Drew Mearns, who 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.
“I’m training every day,” Halko said of her current training regimen. “I’m doing two hours of training a day, and then an hour of swim practice. I also go to the gym on Wednesdays or Saturdays.”
Her training has paid dividends, as Halko now owns American records in the T34 — reserved for Paralympic athletes with impared body movement or control — 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter races in addition to her recent world record in the T34 800-meter.
Halko credited her recent world record to her rigorous training saying, “I was getting more power from my training and pushing more powerfully than I usually do.”
The Road to Rio
Since the age of eight, Halko has dreamed of competing in the Paralympics. It’s a dream that is on the verge of coming true for Halko, who will compete in the U.S. Paralympic Trials, which will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina from June 30 to July 2.
While Halko holds a world record in the T34 800-meter, she is participating in the Trials in order to clinch her spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team. With her Paralympic dream close to becoming a reality, Halko isn’t leaving anything to chance.
“It would mean everything,” she said. “To see it so close, I’m just so excited. If it happened, it would be like a dream come true.”
With the threat of the Zika virus looming large over the Rio Olympics, there have been some concerns about how the virus, which is spread primarily through mosquito bites, could affect Paralympic athletes.
Peter Van de Vliet, the medical and scientific director of the International Paralympic Committee, told The Associated Press athletes with spinal cord injuries and some with cerebral palsy could be at higher risk to catch the virus.
However, Halko’s mom, Elesha, said she doesn’t anticipate fear of the virus keeping her daughter from traveling to Rio and competing.
“We’ve thought about [the Zika virus], but no, it’s not going to stop her from going,” said Elesha Halko. “At all of these events, you could worry about something, whether it’s terrorists or this or that, but you’ve just got to go with it.”