With qualifying trials only weeks away, training for the Paralympics is all about what’s going on inside Stephen Koziel’s brain.
Right before a race, Koziel said he’ll get quiet and reflect on what he needs to do. Picture the perfect race and the perfect outcome – this time, qualifying for the Paralympics.
“It’s definitely more of a mental game at this point,” Koziel, a dual-degree sophomore at Illinois studying psychology and community health, said during a recent morning training practice of higher intensity, lower distance drills. “It puts more pressure on yourself.”
Koziel is one of about a dozen Paralympian hopefuls – including current Illinois student-athletes and Illini alumni – who plan to attempt to qualify in national Paralympic trials at the end of June. Wheelchair track head coach Adam Bleakney said he predicts about 8-10 Illini will achieve marks high enough to qualify as official U.S. Paralympic competitors in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer. The Paralympic trials will be held June 30 through July 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Since the eighth grade, Koziel said, he has wanted to be a Paralympic competitor. For him, Illinois was his only school of choice given its reputation for wheelchair athletic excellence.
“Coming to U. of I., going to the Paralympics is always the goal,” he said. “We are the best program in the world for wheelchair racing. I might be a little biased,” Koziel said with a laugh, “but it’s one of the only programs like it.”
In order to qualify to compete in this year’s Paralympics, Koziel said he’ll have to place in the Top 3 in his classification. He said he has a decent shot at the Top 3 if he achieves a decent qualifying time, but he has doubts about the possibility of medaling should he be chosen to go to Rio.
But if he does qualify to compete, Koziel said, he’d look forward to cheering on his teammates in Brazil.
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