With a record crowd of 8,500 clapping in cadence Saturday, New London’s Kaley Wockenfus lowered her shoulders and powered herself down the 100-meter course in a personal-best 29.10 seconds to become Wisconsin’s first wheelchair-bound competitor at the WIAA State Track and Field Meet.
Wockenfus, who graduated last week from New London High School, was one of nearly 2,900 athletes competing in the two-day state meet at Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Nine other wheelchair athletes also competed Saturday after Wockenfus’ debut, including eight in boys’ events and Oconomowoc’s Melanie Watson in the 1,600-meter race. Wockenfus later competed in the 400-meter race, recording a personal best of 1:58.15.
Wockenfus was born with spina bifida, a defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. The affliction made it impossible for her to participate in sports until this year when the WIAA opened track and field competition to wheelchair athletes.
“I had wanted to be in a sport since I was a freshman, so when I heard about this through the high school, I decided to try out,” Wockenfus said Saturday afternoon while waiting to receive her gold medal in front of the awards podium and packed stadium.
She said the experience was everything she had hoped for, with classmates, school staff and track team members supporting her efforts the past three months.
Coach Robert Smith said he was pleased to see Wockenfus join them team when training began in March. With advice from team trainer Kim Calder and assistance from teammate and personal manager Tylan Mastaw, a freshman, Wockenfus practiced and worked out Monday through Friday, racing and building up her wrists and shoulders to improve her performances. Smith also credited Kaley’s mother, Brenda, who attended daily practices to work with her.
Their combined efforts paid off at state.
“It was great to see Kaley achieve two personal-bests today,” Smith said. “It was kind of unfortunate she didn’t have another girl to race against, but she did the only thing she could do, which was race against herself and go for personal bests. She did it and that’s all you can ask.”
Wockenfus said competing before the large crowd, with everyone focused on her race, boosted her adrenaline.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “At first it was really hard, but then I just concentrated on beating my times.”
Wockenfus competed in a special racing wheelchair she borrowed for track season and soon learned it differed greatly from her regular chair. Race-chairs not only steer differently with a third wheel extended out in front, they require a different stroke to power them. The racer avoids the larger wheel’s hand rim and instead propels the chair with more of a fist stroke on the smaller exterior push rim.
Those differences also require a special racing glove, which has a hard surface under the thumb and atop the middle fingers. Racers press their thumbs against the push rim almost at the top, and keep pressing against it as the wheel turns, almost making a full circle. The more pressure they can put on the rim, the more power and speed they generate.
Unfortunately for Wockenfus, the different gloves and power-stroke techniques proved difficult and caused blisters and hand cramps. She found it easier to use regular gloves and then concentrated on building up her hands and icing them after workouts.
Now that track season and high school are over, Wockenfus isn’t sure if she’ll keep racing. She said she might compete in local running events when possible, but for now is content to have been one of the original 10 wheelchair athletes to compete at the state meet.
Likewise, Smith doesn’t know when he’ll be coaching another wheelchair athlete.
“You hope to see the wheelchair competition expand and more kids to get involved at this level,” he said. “For coaching, it’s actually pretty easy to get a wheelchair athlete into the mix. It’s definitely one of the more interesting coaching experiences possible. We don’t know of anyone in the high school coming up next year to compete, but the opportunity is now there.”