At the Top of Their Game: Number One College Wheelchair Track Program in the Country a Hotbed for Innovation


For over 60 years, the University of Illinois has had a reputable program for wheelchair athletics, establishing its first wheelchair basketball program in 1948, with wheelchair track added in the 1960s. The track program saw successes in the mid-’70s, including Sharon Hedrick becoming the first female athlete to compete in and win the Boston Marathon in 1977.

The program exploded in the 1980s, when wheelchair athlete Marty Morse became head coach and began to mold the program that now dominates the sport. “Marty Morse, who was coach prior to me, built the Illinois program into a juggernaut,” says Adam Bleakney, current head coach. “There were a lot of successes prior, but Marty was key. Certainly what I inherited in terms of a tradition and training philosophy comes directly from Marty Morse.”

The training model established by Morse came from his application of scientific research. He gained his graduate degree in kinesiology from Illinois where he competed as a wheelchair athlete (victim of a dirt bike accident in 1975), which in his own words “pointed me in the direction of my research. I was friendly with the biomechanics and that led me to the creation of the improved wheelchair glove.”

The glove he mentions is the Harness Designs Wheelchair Racing Glove, one of many of his accomplishments in the sport. Developed with the aid of Debbie Harness, Nike’s High Performance Lab developer, the glove is designed take pressure off athletes’ wrists and elbows, thereby reducing tendonitis and other injuries and improving race performance with greater energy transfer when used with a special high friction hand ring coating.

Innovations in training and equipment brought the team much success, but coaching is at the heart of the program. Time and again, athletes tell stories of how their coaches encouraged them to take on challenges they never thought possible. Jean Driscoll was a wheelchair athlete with some short distance success, earning Paralympics gold in 1988 in the 4×200 meter relay, when Marty Morse convinced her to try the Chicago Marathon. She went on to set records with eight wins at the Boston Marathon, which included a 7-win streak. In 2009, Tatyana McFadden was convinced to race the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, her first marathon of any kind, and she won it to her own surprise.

Coaches had been using the “running” model since the program’s inception to train their athletes: long, steady distance training without much variation. That all changed with Morse, who drew from his own experience as a wheelchair athlete. He understood that the regimen used by runners did not apply to paraplegics and quadriplegics. He connected with University of Illinois researcher Brad Hedrick (husband of Sharon Hedrick) and others, and with the help of campus disability services they took the program to a new level with an evidence-based scientific training model. The sport itself was on the rise with new innovations and acceptance by society. The Fighting Illini program lead the charge with phenomenal success, which included Sharon Hedrick skipping an invitation to compete in the 1984 Paralympic Games in favor of the Olympics, where she became the first American wheelchair athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in the 800 meter, and again in 1988, winning gold in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Bleakney, who was coached by Morse before taking the helm in 2005, reveals how his wheelchair athletes’ marathon training differs. “The training we do for the Chicago Marathon, we spend a lot more time with power-based and speed-based work in contrast to runners,” he emphasizes. Since these athletes require enormous upper body strength to propel them, it’s a much different approach out of obvious necessity. “[Wheelchair athletes] can handle more volume than a runner can handle. The athletes will perform 200-meter repeats up to 90 percent of the maximum. They can tolerate more volume with less reps, needing a bit more recovery between intervals.” When it comes to competition, they train for everything from the 100-meter to the marathon.

Although Bleakney claims he stood on the shoulders of a giant, his stewardship of the program and dedication to innovations in training continues the winning tradition. Bleakney is currently working on new “smart wheel” technology in cooperation with a biomechanist from the University of Pittsburgh, a former U of I student.

Highlights during his tenure include:

  • Most major marathons in the world, from the Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Boston Marathons to London and Paris have been won by an Illini athlete.
  • 2008 Beijing Paralympics: Five University of Illinois athletes, comprising only 10 percent of a U.S. team of 42, win 13 of the team’s total 27 medals.
  • 2009 Bank of America Chicago Marathon: Tatyana McFadden competes in and wins her first marathon.
  • 2012 London Paralympics: Ten U of I athletes representing the U.S. win 10 medals; five earned by Raymond Martin who sweeps all T52 races
  • 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships, Lyon, France: Raymond Martin wins every T52 event, the first male athlete to win five gold medals in one para-athletics event; Tatyana McFadden sweeps all women’s T54 events from the 100m to the 5000m for six gold medals

Bleakney finds this latest feat achieved by McFadden, her gold medal sweep at Lyon, France to be stunning. “One of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen in 20 years, maybe ever,” he says.

Future of the Program

Considering the future of the program seems like an odd proposition, because the future always seems like it’s here. So Coach Bleakney likes to express it in terms of the athletes themselves. “They’re all in different stage of development,” he says. “Tatyana wants to win four majors in a year. Another athlete wants to run his first marathon, or break three hours, those kinds of goals always are new and fresh. And from a broader level, the challenge is always to continue the tradition of success… do just a little bit better, staying at the forefront of innovation and positive force for the movement.”

Look for several wheelchair racers from the University of Illinois program, including McFadden, Martin, and the world’s 4th fastest marathoner Aaron Pike as they roll into town to compete in the 2013 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Sunday October 13th.