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Kelsey LeFevour wheeled across the finish line to a rousing ovation and with no other racer in sight. She glided past a throng of well-wishers and to a tent near Buckingham Fountain. Lifting herself out of her racing chair and into her regular wheelchair, she began to ask how the rest of her teammates had fared. For LeFevour, this year’s Chicago Marathon was as much a team thing as it was a personal goal.
LeFevour, a Chicago native and graduate student at the University of Illinois, is a member of the Fighting Illini’s wheelchair track team, one of the best in the nation. The contingent dominated the field: LeFevour placed third in the six-person women’s wheelchair division, which was made up of past and present Illini.
“The first (marathon) for me was very much: just get through it,” said LeFevour, who was born with scoliosis. “I definitely wasn’t at the point where I had been racing long enough to have really enjoyed it. It’s a lot of work. So I wanted to do it again so I could have the experience of having one under your belt and having more years of training.”
LeFevour said the race was still an intimidating experience. In the world of wheelchair racing, she was surrounded by greatness on Sunday: Tatyana McFadden, the three-time gold medalist at the 2012 Paralympics, won her third race in four years, while Susannah Scaroni, another Paralympian, finished second. Meanwhile, the men’s field included Illini Ray Martin, the Paralympic SportsMan of the Year.
LeFevour completed Sunday’s marathon in 2 hours, 20 minutes, 2 seconds, nearly 14 minutes better than her first marathon in 2009.
The Illini wheelchair track team sends a group to several marathons across the country each year, but LeFevour, who specializes in short distance racing, hasn’t ventured outside the Chicago Marathon. At 23, she’s still relatively new to the sport and didn’t get into racing until her freshman year five years ago. Just about all of her Illini teammates have been racing competitively since they about 10, according to Illini head coach Adam Bleakney.
“It takes training volume and there’s a minimum amount of volume you have to put in before you’re able to achieve those elite performances,” Bleakney said. “For the limited amount of time Kelsey’s been in racing she’s shown marked improvement and progress.”
For LeFevour, the marathon was also an opportunity to revisit her hometown. “The city’s great, the culture’s so cool,” she said. “You’re seeing the city from a different perspective. It’s one of my favorite Sundays in Chicago.”
Photograph: Chris Silva