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Wheelchair athletes make state history at track meet in Canton – The Collinsville Press
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Wheelchair athletes make state history at track meet in Canton

SMSA's Stephanie Marquez races Granby's Helen Newman on Tuesday in the 100 meters at Canton High.

SMSA’s Stephanie Marquez races Granby’s Helen Newman on Tuesday in the 100 meters at Canton High.

CANTON, April 12 – Connecticut track and field history was made at Canton High on Tuesday afternoon. For the first time, athletes who are wheelchair racers competed as full fledged teammates alongside their able-bodied peers in track and field.

Stephanie Marquez, a junior at Sport Medicine Science Academy in Hartford, and Helen Newman, a freshman at Granby High, competed in three wheelchair races in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Marquez also competed in the discus, finishing seventh overall with a personal-best throw of 48 feet.

Marquez, a 2015 U.S. Paralympic All-American in the shot, discus and javelin, competed in the discus against 12 able-bodied peers. By finishing third in head-to-head competition against Canton and Granby, she earned a point for SMSA against the Warriors and the Bears.

Marquez also beat Newman in all three races but it wasn’t enough as Granby beat the smaller SMSA squad, 105-21. Canton also beat the Tigers, 94-19.

It’s the first time in Connecticut history that wheelchair athletes competed in track and field as full members, earning points for their respective high school teams.

Granby's Helen Newman and SMSA's Stephanie Marquez chat before the 400 meters in Tuesday's track and field meet in Canton.

Granby’s Helen Newman and SMSA’s Stephanie Marquez chat before the 400 meters in Tuesday’s track and field meet in Canton.

Marquez and Newman are each members of the athletic teams at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain that represent Connecticut in regional, national and international competition. Each hold national records. Marquez has represented the United States and medaled at the Junior World Championships. She plans to compete in the U.S. Paralympic Trials in North Carolina in June.

Newman has been competing has been a member of the Hospital for Special Care’s Cruiser Wheelchair Racers program since 2005. She has competed in the U.S. Junior National championships three times in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

On Tuesday, she and Marquez went one-on-one in their three races. At the national championships, there are between 6-to-8 people in each race, which makes the track a bit more crowded.

“We couldn’t be more proud,” said Janet Connolly, the Sports and Community Programs manager at the Hospital for Special Care. “For both of them, this is a dream they’ve had for many years. It’s a great opportunity. This is a big deal. Kudos to Canton coach Tim O’Donnell for helping making this happen.”

Marquez and Newman had to speak up to get this opportunity. They expressed the interest in participating to officials at their respective schools who got the ball rolling. Marquez, who lives in Middletown, participated in indoor track this past winter, throwing the shot.

“An athlete is an athlete is an athlete,” Connolly said. “Even if you use a wheelchair, an athlete is still and athlete.”

SMSA's Stephanie Marquez won three races on the track and was seventh in the discus Tuesday in Canton.

SMSA’s Stephanie Marquez won three races on the track and was seventh in the discus Tuesday in Canton.

Both have been competing in athletics since they were young. Marquez started when she was six and Newman started when she was three. Marquez usually focuses on the throwing events but raced on the track since Newman was available to compete against. Newman prefers racing in the 1,500 meters.

This is Marquez’s first year with the Tigers and she is one of just six athletes on the SMSA girls squad. She previously attended R.J. Kinsella Magnet School. “She has captured the heart of her teammates,” SMSA coach Cherry Chan said. “They’ll do anything for her. She has fit right in.”

Both Marquez and Newman get the opportunity to practice five days a week with their respective high school teams. That will help them as they work toward regional, national, and perhaps, international competition this summer and fall.

Granby freshman Helen Newman, right, shares a laugh with a teammate at Tuesday's track meet in Canton.

Granby freshman Helen Newman, right, shares a laugh with a teammate at Tuesday’s track meet in Canton.

Connolly said that Connecticut is the 25th state in the nation to allow wheelchair athletes to compete as full members of their team in track and field.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years.

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