Tatyana McFadden has proven to be the world’s top wheelchair marathoner. Now she’ll have an opportunity to prove it at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
McFadden easily won the Chicago Marathon women’s wheelchair race on Sunday — her fifth straight Chicago victory, and putting her one shy of an unprecedented third consecutive marathon grand slam — while breaking her own course record and earning one of four nominations to the U.S. team for the wheelchair marathon in the 2016 Games.
The Chicago Marathon wheelchair races served as the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Marathon, and joining McFadden on the U.S. team in Rio will be Josh George, the top American man in Chicago, as well as second-place U.S. man Aaron Pike and second-place U.S. woman Chelsea McClammer.
McFadden, a four-time Paralympian with 10 track and field medals but none in the marathon, finished the mostly flat but windy course, in 1 hour, 41 minutes, 10 seconds, breaking the course record she set in 2013 and finishing well clear of second-place finisher Manuela Schar of Switzerland, who crossed the finish line at 1:41:56.
“It was absolutely a great day,” said McFadden, who raced with Schar until about half way through the race, when she used one of the few hills on the course to break away.
“I knew that I wanted to start off pretty fast,” McFadden added. “At the halfway point I just hit that hill pretty hard … she fell (back) at that point.”
McFadden plans on competing in six events at the Rio Games, hoping to race in several track events — both sprint and middle distances — in addition to the marathon. McFadden also competes in winter sports and was on the Paralympic Nordic skiing team at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, earning a silver medal.
The four-time Paralympic track and field medalist in London was three minutes and 40 seconds faster than her finish last year in the same marathon.
McClammer finished in 1:50:02 and in third place overall behind McFadden and Schar. McClammer and American and three-time Paralympic medalist Amanda McGrory had the same official finish time, but after reviewing the finish, officials named McClammer the winner of the spot for Rio. The third-place finish was particularly sweet for McClammer, who finished fourth last year in Chicago.
“It was pretty much a replay of last year,” McClammer said. “But I just had a little bit more than I did last year.”
McClammer hadn’t really set her sights on the Paralympic marathon, having focused on preparing for qualifying next summer in some track events, though fewer than McFadden is aiming for.
“I had no idea I would qualify today for the marathon,” McClammer said.
The men’s race was much closer. George, who won at Chicago in 2014, finished third overall in 1:30:48, but he was basically even with second-place finisher Marcel Hug of Switzerland and just two seconds behind winner Kurt Fearnley of Australia. The top 11 men all finished within 13 seconds of each other, with Pike posting a 1:30:54 time for seventh place overall.
As the men crossed a bridge near the finish, some of the chairs were touching, and George said it was very physical trying to push to the finish line.
“It was chaotic,” George said. “You’re kind of edging people out. … Everyone’s just putting their head down. … I kept punching Kurt’s front wheel, Kurt kept elbowing Aaron. I’m surprised none of us went down. It was a physical finish.”
Pike said he, too, plans to try to qualify for other events on the track but was relieved to get his ticket to Rio punched early.
“This definitely makes it a lot easier,” Pike said. “It’s kind of that monkey off the back.”
McFadden, McClammer, George and Pike all train nearby at the University of Illinois in Champagne, which has one of the oldest wheelchair sports programs and now is a U.S. Paralympic Training Site, allowing athletes to train there beyond their student years.
“Success builds success,” George said. “As we keep doing well it keeps attracting more talent.”