As the Beijing 2008 Paralympics Games draw near, six UA student athletes from the Disability Resource Center, known as the DRC, are training to qualify and compete in next summer’s events.
“Let’s go eat some Chinese food,” said Pete Hughes, head coach of the UA Wheelchair Track and Road racing team. “That’s kind of our motto.”
Hughes said although the team doesn’t race until March 1, long distance runners are already training diligently and sprinters are weight training and working with coaches and personal trainers.
The athletes train up to six days a week. To qualify for the games, male racers are required to run a marathon in less than one hour and 40 minutes. Female racers must run the marathon in one hour and 50 minutes.
Hughes said the team normally travels frequently for different events but isn’t traveling much this year. Instead, former Olympic gold medalist Saul Mendoza and his wife Wendy Mendoza will be running a mini-track camp with the team starting on Nov. 29.
“We’re using some of our budget that we would’ve (used) to bring in the top minds of the top athletes in the nation,” said Hughes, who intends to bring in a top racer every year budget permitting.
Hughes said the team is focused on effective off-season programs to help compete with the nation’s best talent, such as the University of Illinois, the original wheelchair track program.
Hughes is not a wheelchair racer and said the athletes always knew of him as an athlete, just not in track. “I think there was a transition period where they (said) hey you’re not a track guy, what do you really know?” said Hughes, who has his master’s degree in sports psychology.
Kyle Mutz, a DRC athlete and UA graduate student who is studying rehabilitation counseling, said he didn’t really get to know Hughes during their first year together but that things have progressed since.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to have him as a coach,” said Mutz, a wheelchair sprinter training for the 100- and 200-meter qualifying events next summer in Atlanta.
Mutz currently is the fastest American sprinter in the 100-meter for the T52 quadriplegic division.
Mutz works with his personal trainer, Willie Caldwell, three days a week and works with a dietician to watch how he eats. “It’s something (that’s) hard to do because, you know. I enjoy fried chicken and a bunch of bad things you shouldn’t be eating as an athlete,” Mutz said.
This is the first year he is ranked in the top 10 in Olympic trials for the men’s 100-meters. Mutz said it will be different being the favorite this year.
“I’ve always gone in as like the fifth or the sixth seed in competition. Now I’ve got people aiming for me this time,” Mutz said, while sitting in his wheelchair after taking a few warm-up laps.
The former national champion said he is still preparing as if he has something to prove. He said he knows what it means to take an extra step more so than other people.
“That might be the difference between me winning a gold medal and me winning a silver medal,” Mutz said.
Hughes said when Mutz races against the clock his times are slower compared to when he races against another athlete, a tribute to Mutz’s competitive drive.
Mutz grew up in Texas and has used a wheelchair since the age 5 after he found it too difficult to use crutches. He was born with arthrogryposis – a congenial disorder that affects his joints and muscles.
Mutz said his father got him interested in wheelchair sports and helped him win regional competitions in Texas, where he remained unbeaten for five consecutive years. He said he has wanted to participate in the Paralympic Games since he was a child.
"I’ve always been interested in, you know, representing my country…I think that’s going to be a great thing for me,” Mutz said. “Some people say they didn’t see themselves (competing in the Paralympics) but when I was younger I knew I was going to accomplish great things.”
Shirley Reilly, a wheelchair marathoner competing to qualify for the 2008 Paralympics, is studying communication at the UA. Reilly participated in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, and recently won the Los Angeles Marathon in 2005.
Reilly said she competed in the 100-, 400- and 800-meter events but didn’t place in any of the events, although she reached the finals for each event.
Reilly, a paraplegic born in Barrow, Alaska, who grew up in Los Gatos, Calif., said she was born prematurely with scoliosis.
Reilly has been involved in wheelchair sports since she was 6 and said it’s exciting to see how each class she’s competed in has gotten more difficult which encourages her to be even more competitive.
“Shirley, she’s bruised up and bleeding almost every single time she’s out here,” Hughes said about Reilly.
“I’m very excited to come back and try to do well again,” Reilly said.
Reilly works with her personal trainer, Steve Gose, three days a week.
Austin Snyder, a computer-science major competing in wheelchair track and road racing, has been racing for more than 20 years.
Snyder recently won the bronze medal in the 400-meter at the Para Pan American Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Snyder, who was born with spina bifida, said he is currently “fine tuning” with weight training and building endurance and won’t begin fully training until January 2008. Snyder said he is already familiar with his competition.
“I expect them to be on their best game and I plan to be on mine,” Snyder said.
Snyder’s relationship with coach Hughes goes back further than most of his teammates. The two used to live in San Diego and played basketball together.
“When you know a guy on a friendship level as well as a coaching level, it tends to make things a lot smoother,” Snyder said.
“I only succeed if they succeed,” Hughes said.
His first shot at competing in the Paralympics Games came in 1996 in Atlanta. “I had a string of bad luck and just had gotten out of the hospital so I wasn’t quite ready at the time,” Snyder said, who is “pretty confident” about his chances in 2008.
Snyder also works with Caldwell, a former NCAA champion in the 500-meter dash and 4x400-meter relay.
Some members on the team are competing against each other and Hughes said there is always pressure to perform well. “It’s a lot of pressure too, especially every four years because you don’t know if you’ll ever get a chance again,” Hughes said.