Alaska-born racer takes gold in the marathon at Paralympics

Beth Bragg
MATT DUNHAM / ASSOCIATED PRESS Shirley Reilly of the U.S. poses with her gold medal after winning the women's marathon at the 2012 Paralympics on Sunday in London.
EMILIO MORENATTI / ASSOCIATED PRESS American Shirley Reilly, originally from Barrow, followed by Britain's Shelly Woods and Switzerland's Sandra Graf, wins the women's marathon at the 2012 Paralympics on Sunday in London.

A lifelong journey that took Shirley Reilly from Barrow to Buckingham Palace ended Sunday with the Alaska-born wheelchair racer becoming a Paralympic gold medalist.

Reilly won the women's marathon Sunday in London, coming from behind to win a thrilling sprint finish that concluded the 26.2-mile race held around The Mall near Buckingham Palace.

Crowds lined the streets to watch one of the final events of the 2012 Paralympics, an international sports festival for athletes with physical disabilities.

Those near the finish line were treated to a fantastic finish that left the top four racers separated by two seconds.

According to a report from U.S. Paralympics, Reilly hung back just behind the leaders and made her move near the end of the race.

"I kept motivating myself to keep going because I was hanging on in there for a very long time," she said in the report. "It was a very tactical race, with a lot of twists and turns. It was tough."

The victory gives Reilly a complete set of medals from London. She didn't win a medal at the 2004 Athens Paralympics or the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, but she scored a bounty of them in her third trip to the Games.

She took silver in the 5,000 meters and bronze in the 1,500 and just missed another bronze in the 400, finishing fourth.

Reilly won the marathon in 1 hour, 46 minutes, 33 seconds. Britain's Shelly Woods took silver in 1:46:34 and Sandra Graf of Switzerland edged Amanda McGrory of the U.S. for the bronze, with both women clocking 1:46:35.

Reilly, 27, suffered spinal cord damage and lost the use of her legs when she was born prematurely.


Reilly spent the first couple of years of her life in Barrow before her parents moved to California so Reilly could be closer to the medical attention she needed.

Reilly became active in sports as a kid and eventually focused on wheelchair racing. She was 19 when she qualified for her first Paralympic team.

Now Reilly lives in Tucson, Ariz., where she attends the University of Arizona and trains with a wheelchair track club at the school.

Reilly has made a name for herself in recent years in the marathon. Earlier this year, she won the Boston Marathon wheelchair division and placed second in Los Angeles Marathon for the second time in three years.

She joins a short list of athletes with Alaska connections to win Paralympic medals, among them, Doug Keil, the founder of Challenge Alaska, who won a couple of gold medals in alpine skiing in 1980, and Dan Jordan, the current coach and former competitor for the UAF riflery team, who won a silver medal in shooting in 2004.

In London, Reilly was part of a U.S. team that won 28 medals in track and field 98 medals overall.

The Paralympics are held every four years in conjunction with the Olympics.

This year's Games featured the most famous Paralympian in history -- South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner" who made a big splash at the London Olympics while running against able-bodied athletes -- as well as numerous men and women injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

At Sunday's closing ceremonies, the U.S. flag was carried by Navy Lt. Brad Snyder of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was blinded by a bomb blast one year ago in Afghanistan. Snyder won two gold medals in swimming.

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Anchorage Daily News