Madeline Gustafson is quickly hitting her stride for the adaptive sports track and field team. Courtesy of Sydney Verlinde.  Buy this photo.

Madeline Gustafson didn’t think she’d ever race on behalf of a team again.

Make no mistake, Gustafson loved to run — she ran extensively throughout her childhood. But when she aged out of her community running organization Girls on the Run after fifth grade, Gustafson imagined it was the end of the road. There simply weren’t any more opportunities in her area for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy to pursue their love of competitive running. 

Nearly ten years later, however, Gustafson found herself waiting for the starting gun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the 2021 Great Lakes Games. Outfitted head-to-toe in Michigan gear, Gustafson was about to become the first ever athlete to compete on behalf of Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitnesses’s Track and Field team. 

“It’s just so nuts to me that this is something I’m doing,” Gustafson said. “I spent my entire time in high school focusing on other things, and I went to college with the mindset of just focusing on my academics and my arts. It’s crazy how quickly things have changed and how positively it has impacted my life, because this isn’t something I ever envisioned.”

It all began earlier in Gustafson’s freshman year. Midway through a Michigan Games and Cards club virtual meeting, a knock came from Gustafson’s dorm room door. Behind it stood fellow Michigan Adaptive Track and Field athlete Cathryn Gray.

“She was in all of her adaptive sports garb and she was super excited and told me that I should join,” Gustafson said. “And the next thing I knew, I was going to track practice all the time.”

The pair, now inseparable, have benefited greatly from having each other to learn from and compete against. 

“Cathryn has been such a big help for me because she has so much experience and has taught me what her coaches have told her in the past,” Gustafson said. “I had no formal training prior to joining the program. Cathryn was the one that taught me what to do when sprinting and how to start — she always gives me pointers.”

A lot has changed since Gustafson joined the Adaptive Sports program. Thanks to diligent behind-the-scenes work from both the program’s athletes and leadership, Gustafson went from training once a week, running on the empty court next to the wheelchair tennis team, to having biweekly access to training at the Varsity Track and Field facility and the Varsity Performance Center and support from a physical therapist and other personnel. 

As a result, in the time that Gustafson has spent with the team, she’s been able to knock a whole three minutes off of her mile time — a remarkable feat. 

After almost a year of preparation for her first competition, the magnitude of the event began to set in for Gustafson.

“The night before, it was so hard to fall asleep because I was so excited but also so nervous. I’d never practiced with the gun firing before,” Gustafson said. “But as soon as I was running, my head went empty. And afterwards was the greatest feeling.”

Despite only training for the 100 meter event, Gustafson also ran in the 200 meter. She finished with times of 20.78 seconds and 48.52 seconds, respectively. While these times wouldn’t get her on the podium, this competition was about much more than heading home with a medal. 

“It was an overwhelmingly positive experience,” Gustafson said. “I met so many people that weekend — every moment was spent meeting someone new. While there was definitely a sense of competition, there was also inclusion, and at the end of the day, it’s more about the fun and the people you get to meet than anything else.”

Now that she’s had a taste of competition again, Gustafson has no plans to slow down.

“Obviously, the people I’ve been competing against have much more experience than me, so it’ll take some time,” Gustafson said. “But I want to spend this summer training and competing. I’m a competitive person, so I want to work on reducing my times and trying my best to come in first.”

Gustafson’s story is a true testament to the impact that the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program has had and will continue to have as it finds its footing at Michigan. The only reason Gustafson ever stopped running competitively is because there simply wasn’t an option available for her to continue. Now, after nearly a decade, joining the program has enabled Gustafson to rediscover her passion, etching her name into the history books as the first track athlete to represent the program at a competition. 

“It’s a huge and incredible honor,” Gustafson said. “I’m incredibly grateful to be the first, and I wouldn’t have gotten here without Michigan’s support.”