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Former Barrow racer Shirley Reilly seizes gold in London Paralympics marathon

Mike Campbell
Courtesy Shirley Reilly

Shirley Reilly, who was born in Alaska's northern town of Barrow, capped off a magnificent Paralympic Games in London on Sunday by winning the gold medal in the women’s marathon by the narrowest of margins.

In a bum rush to the finish line, Reilly, 27, held off three other athletes. She topped Shelly Woods of Great Britain by a single second, winning in one hour, 46 minutes and 34 seconds.

Both bronze medalist Sandra Graf of Switzerland and Amanda McGrory of the United States were another second back.

The victory caps off a spectacular Games in which Reilly captured medals of every color, earning a bronze in the 1,500 meters on the track and a silver at 5,000 meters.

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., before the London Games. "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.

Despite her handicap, Shirley was athletic for most of her life, participating in sports with her siblings and playing goalie when participating in soccer in high school. Reilly, 27, now attends college in Tuscon, Ariz., and earlier this year completed both the Boston and London Marathons. She won the wheelchair division in Boston.

Reilly holds shares in Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC), the Alaska Native corporation representing the Inupiat people of the North Slope. Her mom returns to Barrow occasionally, and her brother, Kevin, is a whaler who this spring 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 in an interview with Alaska Dispatch earlier this year. "I'd love to go back, say hello, see my hometown, and see my family."

According to the London Daily Mail, Sunday’s marathon finish was thrilling, with Reilly leading the breakaway pack of four to the finish line.

“That was such a hard race, probably the hardest marathon I've done in my life,” said Woods, the silver medalist from Great Britain.  “To sprint after 26 miles, it hurts. It hurt like crazy but I wanted it so bad and all the hurt is worth it now.

"Throughout the whole course all I could hear was 'go on Shelly'. When you needed it the most you could hear their support. They were lined all along the way. It was amazing. The crowds have made these Paralympic Games.”

But back in Alaska a smaller contingent of fans was rooting on Reilly, and they were the ones rewarded.

Check out Alaska Dispatch’s profile of Reilly here and a video portrait here -- plus a video of the women’s 1500 race here.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com. Dispatch reporter Alex DeMarban contributed to this report.