James City County teen competes in Paralympics Games

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

JAMES CITY COUNTY — Alexa Halko described training with the Growing Runners Track Club as a game of "catch-up."

The rising Jamestown High junior isn't necessarily competing against the runners to win, she's racing the clock with them.

Alexa's peers get off to a faster start in the first lane before Halko speeds ahead in the third. Eventually, the runners regain ground, and the game continues.

"I get company," Alexa said. "It's just different company."

The alternative for Alexa, who will represent Team USA in the Sept. 7-18 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, would be training alone in her wheelchair.

Alexa broke her own world record in the women's 800-meter race at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, N.C., in June. The 16-year-old, who will be the youngest female representing the U.S. in Rio, recorded a mark of 2:01.83 to claim third place in the T34/53 combined field.

Alexa's T34 classification is reserved for athletes who are "generally affected in all four limbs but more in the lower limbs than the upper limbs," according the International Paralympic Committee. "The arms and trunk demonstrate fair to good functional strength and near to able-bodied grasp, release and relatively symmetrical wheelchair propulsion."

Alexa has cerebral palsy and has been racing in a wheelchair since she was 7. "I can speed-walk," she said, "but if I run, I trip, and it just goes downhill from there."

Alexa walks in school and uses a wheelchair occasionally in airports or places where more strenuous walking is required.

Sometimes, as Growing Runners coach Drew Mearns explained, training solo is inevitable. Track and field can be a lonely sport for an elite athlete, who may be miles ahead of the competition. Mearns' club for distance runners offers Halko a chance to assimilate with like-minded athletes, who get something in exchange from the soon-to-be Paralympian.

"What I do differently is I use Alexa to inspire some of the other serious runners who are just competing maybe to win a state championship or to be an all-state runner," Mearns said. "And I use them for her so she is socialized with other kids that take the sport very, very seriously."

Alexa connected with Mearns, who also serves as her personal coach, about a year and half ago; she and her family, including mother Elesha and father Pete, moved from Oklahoma in 2014, a transition prompted by her father's job.

Alexa also competes in wheelchair basketball with Sportable, a Richmond-based adaptive sports company.

But there is no area adaptive sports track and field program for Halko to join and her Paralympic coaches recommended searching USA Track and Field groups in the area to find a good coaching fit.

The Halkos found Mearns, who does not have an adaptive sports background, but is a respected national running authority and has invested the majority of his life into the sport as a former University of Virginia coach and representative of Olympic athletes in the 1980s and early '90s. He's also the assistant track coach at Lafayetteville High School.

"I told her straight up that I know nothing about the mechanics or the technical side of the chair," Mearns said. "But I know a lot about coaching adolescent distance runners and serious runners. I was very interested."

As a lawyer, Mearns' clients have included marathon legends Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar, distance-running star Mary Decker and two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist and International Association of Athletics Federations President Sebastian Coe.

All five of his children ran track at Jamestown High, and sons Colin and Andrew each ran on scholarship for the Cavaliers.

Mearns accompanied Alexa Halko on a recent trip to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., and will be by her side in Rio, as well.

"He's amazing," Elesha Halko said. "He's been incredible for her. We love him."

Mearns doesn't need to work with Alexa on handling her wheelchair's steering compensator, which enables her to make turns on the track, for example. His guidance is predicated more on mental approach and that isn't exclusive to Alexa, who can turn to her Paralympic coaches for more acute technical instruction when needed.

"Just by working on (the mental side), it helps so much," Alexa said. "Without Coach Mearns, I probably wouldn't be where I am right now because he has helped me so much since we got to Virginia from Oklahoma."

With Growing Runners, Alexa has trained with area stars including Air Force Academy runner and recent Tabb High graduate Lindsey Blanks, VCU runner and Lafayette graduate Delaney Savedge and Lafayette rising senior standout Brooke Crookston.

"Having her do workouts with the rest of the girls and me is so much fun and she's just like any of the rest of us when we are on a track," Savedge said. "The fact that she's in a chair doesn't seem to matter when we are all hard at work. As for the mental training, it doesn't matter which of the club members it is, it's all the same. The amazing thing is that no matter who we are as athletes, the mental training applies to all of us."

Crookston said, "I have seen such dedication from Alexa. She works so hard and is such a good inspiration and member of the club. And what I've learned from her is that even if you may think you have a setback, you can adapt and make the best of it. She is one of the hardest working and sweetest girls I know. I'm so glad I've gotten to know her."

She represented the U.S. last summer in the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, with a silver medal showing in the 100 and 400. That followed four gold medals in the 2014 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Junior Games in England.

Even with the world record in the 800, Alexa made no assumptions about making the U.S. team and when it was officially announced, she cried, to the point her mom wanted to make sure they were tears of joy. "You made it, didn't you?" her mom asked.

"This is the Paralympic Games," Alexa said. "This is everything you've worked for. Just to represent USA is just awesome."

Elesha Halko said Alexa goes to bed happy, wakes up happy and while regimented and focused, showed no signs of athletic prowess before choosing a wheelchair to race in as a youngster.

Though she is setting out to win, Alexa believes just qualifying for Rio is an accomplishment. And there's a greater message she wants to dispatch.

"Even if you have cerebral palsy or any disability, they can try it out," Alexa said. "Just try it out. See what you can do. I'm just trying to get the message out that you can do whatever you want. At least try it."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

Watching Alexa Halko

(on NBC Sports or Paralympics.org)

Opening Ceremony

Sept. 7, 5 p.m.

100m

Prelim: Sept. 9, 7:10 p.m.

Final: Sept. 10, 5:05 p.m.

400m

Prelim: Sept. 13, 11:25 a.m.

Final: Sept. 14, 5 p.m.

800m

Prelim: Sept. 15, 11:05 a.m.

Final: Sept. 16, 5:10 p.m.

Alexa's PRs

100: 18.55

400: 1:01

800: 2:01

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