Two athletes who train or work at the Riekes Center for Human Advancement in North Fair Oaks Katie Holloway and Steven Toyoji have returned home from the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. One bears a gold medal, and both athletes spoke with the Almanac about their accomplishments in Rio.
The Paralympics, an international sports competition for athletes with disabilities, is associated with the Olympic Games, and was held this year from Sept. 7 to 18 in Rio.
Katie Holloway, who trains at the Riekes center, took gold with her team in sitting volleyball. Steven Toyoji, who works in adaptive fitness at the Riekes Center when he is not training or competing, raced in the 400-meter and 1,500-meter events in track and field. He took 5th in the 1,500-meter event.
Both athletes are often seen training and participating in activities around the center, according to Gary Riekes, the center's founder and executive director. Located at 3455 Edison Way, the center is a nonprofit that offers fitness, musical, and outdoor education and coaching for people of all ages and ability levels.
The journey to train and prepare for the Paralympics this "quad" (four-year cycle between competitions), hasn't been easy, she told the Almanac.
She moved to the Bay Area in 2013, away from where the official team is stationed in Oklahoma, after getting a job at the Palo Alto VA. She set about pursuing her own training regimen, and in the process, has had to launch a grassroots effort to build a sitting volleyball program in the Bay Area.
While she does conditioning and cross-training on her own, getting enough people together for regular six-on-six games is a challenge.
When she was 20-months old, she had one of her legs amputated below the knee, and has lived with a prosthetic most of her life. She participated in standing sports when she was younger, including volleyball, and competed on the women's basketball team at California State University, Northridge.
Ten years ago, in her senior year of college, she was recruited for the U.S. sitting volleyball team. Now, she's back from her third Paralympics trip, this time with a gold medal. She said she was most proud of her team's dominant performance over China: 25-12, 25-12, 25-18.
"This was the first time we've seen our team perform at that level," she said. "We literally were flawless. … We made a statement, I think."
When he was only 8 months old, Steve Toyoji was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological condition that causes inflammation of the spine. He was initially paralyzed from the shoulders down, but later regained some mobility in his arms and legs.
He grew up in Seattle, where he competed in track and field in wheelchair racing. Racing wheelchairs are different from the everyday wheelchair apparatus, he said, and can be awkward for some people to get used to. For him, though, it felt natural from the beginning.
He received a scholarship to compete at the University of Arizona in Track & Field, and competed in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. "Track has taken me all over the world," he said.
With the Paralympics, not every competition is offered at the games every four years, he explained. Because the Paralympics classifies competitors based on the specific nature of their disabilities, each racing event has many subdivisions. This year, the 1,500-meter race was offered, but not the marathon or the 800-meter race, which he had competed in during the 2008 Beijing games. He placed fifth in the marathon in 2008.
Wheelchair racing involves a lot of strategy and planning, he said. The International Paralympics Committee sets standards on what kind of equipment is allowed in the competition, which helps to level the playing field.
People have different approaches to how they sit in and maneuver their chairs, however. During a race, he said, it's safe to assume that his competitors will "bring their A-game," and visualize for that. However, he added, "There's a very good possibility it will go nothing like how you planned it."
Back in the states after his competition, he said, "My first gut reaction is that I definitely want to try out for the 2020 team." For now, though, he's planning to spend time relaxing after training for what he calls "the better part of the last four years."