Elena Guevara was no different than the average track and field athlete on hand for Friday’s Cullman Classic at Oliver Woodard Stadium.
The Good Hope junior had a full slate of four events, practices diligently to reach her max potential in each one and has every intent of wrapping up her season with a state title in hand.
The fact Guevara competes in a wheelchair does little to alter any of those aforementioned facts. At this point in the Lady Raider’s life, she’s accepted the physical limitations brought on by being born with spina bifida and having scoliosis. Neither has slowed her from striving for the same glory so many other high school students are awarded.
Guevara’s drive to succeed was never more apparent than in her 400-meter race at Friday’s meet.
As has been the case at every event this year, the teen had the track all to herself. Decked out in heavy-duty racing gloves and in command of a slick chair featuring two skinny, sloped wheels by her side and one smaller sphere out front, Guevara took off at the sound of the starter’s gun and began gaining steam for the full trip around the oval.
By the time she reached the backstretch, the crowd picked up its applause, which was at a full roar by the time Guevara rolled past the hordes of fellow tracksters cheering her on as she crossed the finish line.
Good Hope coach Matt Heaton beelined directly over to Guevara’s side, leaned over and let her know she had shattered her previous personal record by a minute. The good news elicited a quick smile and an immediate fist bump between the two, a similar reaction shared by many of the girls and boys who proceeded to run the event with their legs.
“She’s just another athlete on the team that just happens to be in events by herself waiting on some competition,” Heaton said.
Guevara’s initial interest in the sport came from her brother, Edgar, a recent Good Hope graduate and short-distance specialist in his own right. She saw her sibling enjoying himself and didn’t figure, wheelchair or no wheelchair, there was any reason why she couldn’t do the same.
While that provided the foundation for Guevara’s athletic endeavors, the realization of an actual prep career didn’t begin to take shape until about a year ago during a visit to the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham. There, she learned all about the different sports right at her fingertips — wheelchair football, track, basketball, hockey, you name it — from a non-profit organization that seeks to infuse physical fitness into the lives of those with physical disabilities or chronic health conditions.
Track and field obviously ended up being Guevara’s competition of choice. She’s been hooked ever since, taking on the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races, as well as the shot put.
“It’s exciting,” Guevara said. “I just get an adrenaline rush when I’m going at it. It’s really fun.”
The main difference between Guevara and her running teammates is that they generally focus on strengthening their legs, whereas almost all of her training is understandably centered on upper-body work. And racing is just half the battle. Developing the power to move back and forth on her own between her everyday wheelchair and competitive chair has been the other.
Those kinds of speedbumps have been made easier by Heaton, who Guevara referred to as “the best coach ever.” The two regularly spend seventh period out on the track, but, in cases of inclement weather, have taken their operation indoors, which generally draws dozens of curious onlookers out from their classrooms and into the hallways.
Heaton said Guevara received the most attention when her specialized chair made its first appearance on campus. The sleek track chariot is currently a loaner from Lakeshore that will have to be replaced over the summer in order for the junior to close out her prep career. The coach is hopeful a grant will help take care of the financial ramifications of the switch.
In the meantime, Guevara will keep on trucking toward her eventual goal of securing a set of state titles for her school. She’d prefer to have some other folks to race at some point in the season but isn’t overly concerned with matters out of her control.
As of Friday, Guevara was the only wheelchair competitor with any results for the 2014 campaign posted on the Alabama Runners website. However, that doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of another contender popping up by the beginning of May.
“Either way, competition or not, she’s excited about it, and I’m excited for her,” Heaton said.
Track and field has changed Guevara in ways she could’ve never imagined. She said she’d like to continue competing in college — hopefully at Auburn University — and “pretty much for the rest of my life.”
“I now believe I can do any sport that I set my mind to,” Guevara said. “If people that can walk can do it, well, I can do it.”
See an upcoming edition of The Times for a story on another Good Hope track and field star, Sam Dyson, a fun-loving javelin thrower with autism.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.