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Alaska Native headed to London Olympics for wheelchair racing

Alex DeMarban
Shirley Reilly, wheelchair racing champion.
Courtesy Shirley Reilly
Shirley Reilly winning the wheelchair division of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Reilly beat Japan’s Wakako Tsuchida by one second.
Hyunah Jang / Boston University News Service
Shirley Reilly winning the wheelchair division of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Reilly beat Japan’s Wakako Tsuchida by one second.
Courtesy Shirley Reilly
Shirley Reilly, 2012 Boston Marathon wheelchair division champion.
Courtesy Shirley Reilly
Shirley Reilly, with her sister Ronnie and father Kevin.
Courtesy Shirley Reilly

Shirley Reilly was born so early her lungs didn't work. When Anchorage doctors tried to breathe into them with a machine, the lungs ruptured, cutting off oxygen to her body. She lost consciousness and turned gray. Her parents thought she'd died.  

But Reilly's story was just beginning. Now 26, Reilly recently won the Boston Marathon wheelchair race, flashing past one of the world's top competitors for a one-second win in the 26.2-mile event. This summer, she'll take her racing chair to the London Olympics as a member of the U.S. Paralympics team.   

Reilly has a decent chance of medaling, yet many Alaskans have never heard of her. Alongside Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, a Yup'ik snowboarder originally from Southwest Alaska, she may be one of only two Olympic athletes with Alaska Native roots.

Inupiaq born with damaged spine

Reilly, who is half Inupiaq, was born six weeks early. When she lost air, her spine was badly damaged. She lost the use of her legs and partial hearing. But Barrow, the nation's northernmost community where Reilly spent her first two years, didn't have the experts to help her. Neither did Anchorage.

"There was all kinds of medical stuff she needed that Alaska couldn't do," said her mom, Dora Reilly, reached at her home in Los Gatos, Calif. "When she was 2, doctors said they would have to chop her legs off because they were turning purple. I said, 'No, I don't think I'll have my baby's legs chopped off.'"

So the Reilly family moved to San Jose, Calif., to live near a Shriners Hospital for children. Growing up, Shirley had hip surgery, ankle surgery and multiple operations on her badly curved back. At 11 or 12, doctors removed eight spinal discs and two ribs, fusing together a titanium frame to reinforce what was left of her spine.

That was the most painful time of her life, said Shirley, reached by phone in Tucson, Ariz., where she's attending college.

Funny thing is, despite that tribulation and others, her mom says she never complained. That's mostly true, said Shirley. "I never really looked at the negative side. I never looked at something and said I can't do it. Having a disability, you learn to adapt to whatever it is you need to do."

'You can do what you want' 

Her parents, decent athletes themselves, never treated her like an invalid. She excelled in a disabled sports program, even winning a huge trophy for wheelchair ping-pong. She shot hoops in pick-up games alongside her two big brothers and a sister. And in sixth grade, she joined the cheerleading squad supporting her brother's Pee-Wee football team, waving pom-poms from the wheelchair.  

Before middle school, her father raised hell when the district tried to put Shirley in a school for the severely disabled. Kevin Reilly refused to treat her like an invalid. "He was so angry," Dora Reilly said. "He fought for her to be in a regular school. He said, 'She's not that handicapped. She's got her brain.'"

It paid off. In a standard middle school in Mountain View, Calif., a gym coach she remembers fondly made her wheel around the track, doing laps alongside the kids with legs. When the gym class played soccer, she was goalie.

Those experiences were pivotal. "They helped open me up and realize you can do what you want to do and not let a disability stop you," said Shirley.  

This week, Reilly returned to Arizona after two rewarding marathons. She was fourth in the London Marathon a week after the Boston Marathon. At Boston, she set a personal best of 1 hour, 37 minutes, 36 seconds as she slipped past Wakako Tsuchida of Japan.

A junior in college who wants to work for the Department of Homeland Security, Reilly holds shares in Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC), the Alaska Native corporation representing the Inupiaq people of the North Slope. Her mom returns to Barrow occasionally, and her brother, Kevin, is a whaler who recently helped land a bowhead with Barrow's ABC (Arnold Brower Crew) whaling crew.  

"I haven't been back there since I was born, quite shameful to say," Shirley said. "I'd love to go back, say hello, see my hometown, and see my family."

For now, she's got her eyes on London. She may be in the best shape of her life, thanks partly to her boyfriend, Sean Eres, who's paralyzed from the waist down. In training, she races after his faster hand-cranked cycle. Other times, he strengthens his arms pulling her.  

Shirley has qualified for the past two Paralympics in 2004 and 2008, finishing seventh in the marathon four years ago, just 27 seconds behind gold medalist Edith Hunkeler of Switzerland. 

Medal prospect

She believes this might be the year for her first medal. She's qualified for the marathon, and hopes to add other events, such as the 800-meter race. She's scheduled to compete in Iowa, Switzerland and England before the Olympics.  

Staying focused keeps her spirits up.

"I take one day at a time, and I really try to focus on my goal," Shirley said. "Now my goal is to do well in London. I just try to remember that goal and believe in myself and my coach and the people who support me."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com