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Youth Movement

Reprinted from SNS January 2017

Three U.S. Paralympians under 25 years old turned heads with strong medal performances in Rio de Janeiro

A youth movement helped propel the United States to its highest Paralympic Games medal count in more than 20 years last summer in Rio de Janeiro. 

Team USA hauled in 115 medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Summer Games — the most since the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics.  

While some of the most decorated athletes included veterans and household names such as Tatyana McFadden in track and Jessica Long in swimming, there were other young up-and-comers who surprised the field and made a mark for themselves in Paralympic sport for years to come.

Two of them just hit their early 20s, and one hasn’t even finished high school yet. They’re the future for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and beyond. 

Dahl Delivers

At age 20 and only two years into her competitive career, McKenna Dahl became the first American woman to win a Paralympic shooting medal when she took bronze in the mixed 10-meter air rifle prone SH2 event in Rio at the Centro Nacional de Tiro Esportivo. 

Ukraine’s Vasyl Kovalchuk won the event with a Paralympic finals record 211.7 points, followed by Korea’s Geunsoo Kim (211.2) and Dahl (189.5). 

“It was a big move in showing disabled females that you can really do whatever you put your mind to, and you don’t have to let anyone hold you back,” Dahl says. “Rio was so much fun, I want to do it again in Tokyo.”

Just eight months after making her first final at an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) shooting event, Dahl (Arlington, Wash.) found herself in the  Rio final thanks to an impressive qualification round that put her in third place. She was the youngest competitor and only female among the eight finalists, and it was her mental steadiness, controlled heartbeat and checked nerves, that carried her to the podium in a composed manner.

“As soon as I came off the line from the final, I moved back and was sitting by my coach who was congratulating me, and I looked over at my parents when they realized I was going to win a medal, and they almost got me crying,” Dahl says.

Her medal was the first for the U.S. in shooting since Dan Jordan won silver in 2004; Roger Withrow is the only American to have won gold, winning the air rifle prone event in 1984. 

Dahl, who was born with amyoplasia arthrogryposis in her left hand and both of her feet, causing her muscles not to form properly, was originally inspired to take up shooting by Ernie Butler, Paralyzed Veterans of America’s director of sports and recreation. She will graduate from DeVry University with a business and technology management degree in May, and then plans to continue her shooting career at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

With the U.S. Paralympic team having grown from two to eight shooting athletes in the last Paralympic cycle, Dahl wants to help that number continue to increase in the future. She’s already looking ahead to competing at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and perhaps another Games after that, hoping to improve her aim in the air rifle standing event so she can crack the final round in multiple disciplines the next time around.

Dahl also says Rio 2016 inspired her to want to coach the next generation of Paralympic Shooting Para sport athletes one day. Seeing her own progression from the grassroots to the Paralympic level has invigorated her, and now she wants to help others make that progression and to coach them.

Halko Finds Energy Boost

At 16, Alexa Halko (Williamsburg, Va.) became the youngest U.S. athlete to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympics when she broke her own T34 800-meter record at last June’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials. Halko then raced well beyond her years in Rio, medaling in all three track events she entered.

Halko, who has cerebral palsy and was born in Oklahoma, had been aspiring to reach the Paralympics ever since she was 7, when someone from the Greater Oklahoma Disabled Sports Association approached her at a farmers’ market in Edmond, Okla., inviting her to participate in some of the club’s events. So when her plane landed in Brazil, it felt like she was entering into a dream.

“At the beginning, when I walked into the Opening Ceremony and got to be around all these amazing, experienced athletes who have been doing it for a while, it was so crazy,” Halko says. “The moment that [Brazilian Paralympic swimmer Clodoaldo Silva] got up there and lit the torch when it was pouring down rain was the best moment ever. It just really hit me that I was in Rio. And then competing against the fastest people in the world was just as crazy.”

In Rio, against racers twice her age, Halko took silver medals in the 400- and 800-meter T34 races, finishing just behind Great Britain’s five-time Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft in both finals. Cockroft set a world record of 58.78 seconds in the 400, while Halko’s time of 1 minute, 00.79 seconds broke the American record. In the 800, Cockroft won in a season-best 2:00.62, while Halko finished in 2:02.08.

Halko also earned bronze in the 100-meter T34 event, finishing in 18.81 seconds — 1.39 seconds out of first. She credited all her fast times to the raucous crowd of the host nation.

“I had heard the Brazilian crowd was going to be awesome, but when I was actually there, it was overwhelming how supportive they were,” Halko says. “They were cheering the U.S. team or any other team on like they were all the Brazilians.”

After a post-Paralympics break, Halko is now trying to get back into the swing of things before her 2017 season picks up in April. Training four days a week, mostly alone, she’ll aim to work on her starts, her stamina for longer distances and learning better race tactics when lining up against her T34 competitors. 

Iannotta Still Stunned

Since returning stateside with a double dose of Paralympic medals, 22-year-old wheelchair racer Gianfranco Iannotta has been inundated with media interviews, speaking engagements and school visits.

“My post-Rio experience has been crazy, phenomenal and surreal,” says the Garfield, N.J., native.

At last September’s Paralympics, Iannotta flourished in the underdog role, unexpectedly winning the 100-meter T52 final by .08 seconds and beating fellow American Raymond Martin, who was both the reigning Paralympic and world champion in the event. He then earned bronze in the men’s T52 400-meter final (1:02.16, 3.74 seconds behind Martin), a race in which he finished fourth at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships the year prior. 

But Iannotta, a self-proclaimed history buff who even before Rio stated his plan to compete in three Paralympics in his lifetime, still to this day is nitpicking his medal-winning races.

“In my 100 meters, even though I won it, my start wasn’t very good,” he says of his 17.17-second time — nearly half a second off his personal best. “I’m usually the first one off the start line, but this time I wasn’t, so I need to work on my starts.”

Iannotta is not enrolled in school at the moment, so he can devote all of his time to track and field. He’s planning to stick with the sprints for next July’s IPC Athletics World Championships in London, where he’ll hope to clock closer to his personal best of 16.80 seconds in the 100 and attempt to go under 1 minute in the 400.


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