Going the Distance for a Golden Dream
By Lynda Lin, Assistant Editor
Pubished August 15, 2008
Steven Toyoji always calls himself lucky. The 22-year-old University of Arizona student says he's been blessed with a normal childhood, a loving family and great friends.
He calls himself "extremely lucky" that he lives relatively free of pain, unless you count the soreness that comes with zipping along roads and tracks for about 20 miles a day on a low-lying wheelchair built for speed. It's the kind of pain that makes your arms feel like lead. ThePlace Holder n maybe, it's not so lucky.
"The worst thing about a marathon is training for it," said the Yonsei wheelchair racer to the Pacific Citizen from his Tucson home after one such training session.
But it will all be worth it in a few weeks when Steven takes his position next to other world-class athletes at the Paralympic Games in Beijing. At the Sept. 6-17 games, Steven has a chance at glory in three track events: the 400-meter, the 800-meter and the marathon.
"I've never been on this kind of stage. Nothing can compare," he said about his first Paralympic Games. He's nervous, but once the gunshot goes off signaling the beginning of the race he knows he'll fly.
"He's one of the best racers around," said Pete Hughes, Steven's coach at the University of Arizona. "I think he'll medal for sure."
But it's not just any medal he wants - Steven is going for gold.
His Body Went to Sleep
"The thing about Steven is he never thought something was the matter with him," said his mom Susan Toyoji.
Growing up in Redmond, Wash., Steven was once told he couldn't play basketball because he couldn't run, so Steven ran.
He didn't grow up knowing he had a disability - the results of transverse myelitis, a rare neurological syndrome caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. It attacked when Steven was only eight months old.
"One day he woke up and was feeling out of sorts. He was crying and sort of flopping around. He was irritable," said Susan about her youngest son with husband Kenny Toyoji.
At first, the doctors didn't know what was wrong. They burned through a slew of diagnoses — some fatal. Then Susan and Kenny heard the word that changed their lives: paralysis.
The doctors said it was like Steven's body went to sleep.
"It was a hard time," said Susan, a retired elementary school teacher.
But in the sport of life, everyone loves an underdog. Steven, who was initially paralyzed from the shoulders down, gained feeling back in his arms. He can even walk a little.
"It's not graceful, but it gets me from point A to point B," said Steven.
For the most part, he says he has never been treated any differently from anyone else - even at home with his older siblings Kurt and Lisa. Growing up there were no ramps or rails in their two-story house. And at Redmond High School, where he graduated in 2004, he was crowned homecoming king.
"I was always polite to people," Steven explained as a reason for his popularity. "I wasn't a mean kid."
There are still little things he struggles with - he can't really touch his thumb and forefinger together and he doesn't always do well with buttons. Susan once introduced her son to more user-friendly zippers, but he didn't like it.
"I am always looking for things that would make it easier for him. But he doesn't need it. He just makes due," she said.
He was also always competitive.
While on a family vacation, young Steven refused to leave until he caught a fish like everyone else. Lisa had reeled in one earlier, so when Steven wasn't looking, they placed Lisa's fish on his line and had him reel it in.
A couple of years ago, his family finally told him the truth, but he still swears the fish put up a fight.
Boy Meets Sports
Steven didn't get involved in wheelchair sports until he was 16. At first, it wasn't easy to get him to go, mostly because he didn't see himself bound to his wheelchair.
"I was hating it," said Steven about his first few weeks with the Northwest Adaptive Sports program.
But after awhile, nothing compared to playing sports with people with similar physical challenges.
Then he started going to track practice, but it wasn't love at first sight.
"The sport needs to grow on you," said Steven. To be a successful racer, the wheelchair needs to fit like a shoe, but the "loaner" chairs he received from the sports program were often too big.
"I jiggled around in my chair a lot."
But he got better, went faster and caught the attention of Jacob Heilveil, a former Paralympian, who saw real potential in the young athlete. Heilveil introduced Steven to Wendy Gumbert, a national team coach for the U.S. Paralympics.
"From the beginning it was obvious, he has a lot of heart and determination," said Gumbert.
At 18, Steven competed at his first international competition.
"I got out there, and people were riding my lanes, bullying me around and cutting me off. Of course because I didn't know any better, I slowed down."
Now, he races smart. He races tactical, but not mean.
Before any competition, he visualizes the race in his head. What will he do if he gets a flat? Where will he attack? And of course, if he spies a heavier competitor, he makes a mental note to draft behind him.
Dreams in the Making
To get ready for the games, Steven trains six days a week. He does two-a-days and about 20 miles. His intensity has earned him the nickname "energizer bunny" among his coaches.
"A lot of times, I've had to tell Steven to not work that hard. I guess it's a good negative trait to have," said Gumbert.
It's because Steven has a lot of making up to do — he missed out on the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens because of a disability classification error.
"He's turned the corner after Athens. Originally he was okay with it, but then during the opening ceremonies, he said I should be there. I got robbed," said Hughes.
In March, Steven came in first place in the quad division at the Los Angeles Marathon to win his berth on the Paralympic team. His road to Beijing will begin during training camp Aug. 21 in Japan, where he will vacation with his family after the games.
So far, Steven says his most formidable competitors are Santiago Sanz from Spain and Thomas Geierspichler from Austria. But he talks mostly about how incredibly lucky he is to be able to compete at this elite level.
"He can do it. I know he can get a medal. It's all in his heart," said Gumbert.
But no matter what happens in Beijing, he says he'll continue racing until he's old. It's the beauty of competition that gets him up in the morning, but it's his spirit that inspires everyone around him, especially his mom who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago.
"It's not a bad sentence," she said. "I live with it. Part of it is because of Steven.
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