For a second consecutive weekend, Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program announced itself as a force to be reckoned with on the adaptive track and field scene.
Two Wolverines, Dental student Leo Merle and sophomore Cathryn Gray, competed on behalf of the program at the Desert Challenge Games in Mesa, Arizona. In their first competitions representing Michigan, they’d have been forgiven for showing some jitters. But the pair — both experienced competitors — needed no time to get up to speed. Between the two of them, the Wolverines flew home sporting two gold medals, three silver medals and a national record.
Paralympic hopeful Merle competed in just one event, the 1500 meter. Having set a new personal record of 4:09 just a few weeks prior — a time that would see him have little trouble securing a spot on the US Paralympic team if run on qualifying day — the hope was that Merle would stroll to a first place finish.
However, a combination of factors meant that it wasn’t to be for Merle. An IT band and quadricep muscle issue had confined him to a stationary bike for the weeks leading up to the event, allowing some of his hard-earned fitness to slip away. On top of that, the scorching conditions in the arid Arizona desert were a sharp departure from the Michigan weather Merle has become accustomed to training in.
As a result, Merle finished the race in second place with a time of 4:23. While a silver medal is far from something to turn your nose up at, Merle wasn’t exactly over the moon.
“Overall, it definitely wasn’t what I was looking for,” Merle said. “I know I’m faster than that. But you can’t control the conditions, and given how my leg has been, I’m content with how the race went.”
With the Paralympic trials rapidly approaching, Merle will be up against the clock as he works to overcome his injury and get his time back to where it needs to be to earn a spot on the US team. While he’s proven that he’s capable of running the 4:10 benchmark time needed to secure a seat on the plane to Tokyo, the coming days of training will be some of the most important of his young adaptive sports career.
Michigan’s Gray, despite having a historic weekend, also left the competition considering the road ahead — but for much different reasons.
Gray, who was the first ever member of Michigan ASAF’s track and field team, was utterly dominant at the Desert Challenge Games, collecting gold medals in discus and javelin and silver medals in shot put and the 100m. Her most impressive performance came in the discus event, where she threw a distance of 17.11m — a junior national record for her classification of F35.
Remarkably, Gray wrapped up the games as her F35 classification’s world number one in javelin, number two in discus, and number nine in shot put.
While Gray is no stranger to elite adaptive track and field competitions, this one felt different.
“Every time I went up to compete, I thought about how this was bigger than just me,” Gray said. “This was about growing the program and encouraging people and representing women with disabilities and women in sports, so I really wanted to do my best.”
In terms of Michigan’s adaptive sports program, Gray has been there since the very beginning. As a result, she’s acutely aware of the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
“I just want to make a positive impact on the program and show other people that women with disabilities and people with disabilities in general can get involved in sports,” Gray said. “For this program, the sky’s the limit — we’re the leaders and the best. I’d love for us to get more athletes, more women in the program, more paralympic sports represented with more coaches.”
For that legacy to be realized, however, a key box remains to be checked.
“We need the university to see us as contributing members of the university, as equal, as very much valued,” Gray said. “I hope that as the program grows, the university sees that it’s not just about athletics — we’re changing people’s lives. I don’t know where I’d be without this program.”
After a weekend where she set the adaptive track and field scene alight, seemingly all Gray could think about was using her success as a catalyst for the further growth of adaptive sports at Michigan. While admirable, it’s simultaneously a disappointing indictment of the paltry recognition the program has received from the university thus far.
However, Gray remains both grateful and optimistic.
“I was really self-conscious as a child,” Gray said. “People would look at my braces and see that I had surgery and they wouldn’t think that I could amount to a lot.
“I started to wonder if this was all there was for me. I couldn’t dream of having all of the opportunities that I do now. Having this program on an equal and recognized playing field as everyone else would be so amazing, and I think we can do it.”