ROLLING TO VICTORY
Paralympian setting sights on 2000 Games in Australia.

 

The Forum
Sports
Sunday, July 2, 2000
Story by Terry Vandrovec
Photos by Darren Gibbons


Judy Siegle knows her limits as an athlete, and they have nothing to do with the fact she races in a wheelchair.

Siegle speaks in terms of sprinting and running. She is a world-class athlete who came within a place of winning an Olympic medal, and she has earned a chance to compete for another. Just because she races on wheels has no bearing on her terminology - or her attitude. "I'm more of a middle distance runner," Siegle said. "I prefer shorter distances, but I'm not naturally a sprinter."

By talking to the 39-year old Fargo resident, one soon discovers her limitations are few - even though she is a quadriplegic. "Whatever you come up with in life, you can choose how you respond," Siegle said. "The thrill for me is being out there and doing the best with what I've been given."

Siegle has taken what she was given in a 1979 car accident and turned herself into one of the elite wheelchair racers in the world.

She earned a trip to Sydney, Australia to compete in the 2000 Paralympic Games - which run Oct. 18 through 29 - by taking three first places and one second place at the United States Paralympic Trials in New York last week. She'll compete in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter events.

"That'll be a thrill to be in Australia," Siegle said. "The initial experience can be overwhelming, so I know more of what I'll be getting into." The experience Siegle referred to was the 1996 Paralympics Games in Atlanta. Accompanied by friends and family, Siegle broke the United States and world record in the 800-meter race. However, that was only good enough for fourth place.

Siegle also came in fourth in the 400, and she earned fifth place in the 200-meter race.

Siegle, who is a social worker at MeritCare hospital, knew she would have to dedicate more time to workouts to get back to the event in 2000.

"I knew I wanted a reduced work load and schedule, a sponsor, and a coach so I would be peaking at the right time," Siegle said.

MeritCare accommodated her wishes.

After returning home from the 1998 World Games in England, Deb Soliah, the executive director for MeritCare Foundation, approached Siegle. Soliah told Siegle that MeritCare may be able to cover all of her competitive expenses and allow her a light work load so she had more time to train.

Through cooperation with the Olympic Job Opportunity Program, Siegle was allowed to conduct her work around her training schedule. Plus, MeritCare footed the bill.

"We are one of many in the nation who are facilitating elite athletes to train and develop their career and sport," said Pamela Schaefer, the executive partner of strategic support services at MeritCare. "We are just so proud to have an Olympian in our community. We support her in that work."

Siegle is able to have five to six track workouts per week. Along with being able to compete in more events than in the past, Siegle also travels the country as an inspirational speaker.

"She has a very moving and inspiration story to tell," Schaefer said. "Part of what we're supporting is her going nationwide to tell her story."

Overcoming Tragedy:

An all-state basketball player at Pelican Rapids (Minn.) High School, Siegle suffered a broken neck in a car accident that left two people dead one month before she was to begin a college basketball career at Concordia College. Siegle's vehicle was struck by a car filled with four people who had been drinking. The car sped through a stop sign and hit her car.

The accident left Siegle paralyzed and dazed. It would be four to six weeks before she would regain her senses due to the concussion she suffered. Her neck, however, wouldn't heal. Siegle was left with extremely limited use of her legs and no use of her right hand.

"When I became a quad, I thought my days in the athletic arena were done," Siegle said. "I thought I'd have to put my energies into other areas."

Siegle continued to exercise recreationally while attending Concordia and graduate school at the University of Minnesota, but her return to competitive sports came just seven years ago - on a rugby team.

Playing for the North Dakota Wall Bangers in Grand Forks, N.D., Siegle rediscovered her competitive earnings. "I was just thrilled," Siegle said. "I'd come back from matches or tournaments on just a high. It was great to hear what other quads were doing."

Several rugby, skiing, canoeing and kayaking trips later, Siegle began her racing career at the University of Illinois. "I went down there and worked with them, and I really improved," she said.

"I saw the Paralympics qualifying time and I was along ways off. I thought, ‘how was I ever going to hit those times?' But I kept working and the times just started dropping."

Keeping a winning attitude:

Since the Atlanta Olympics, Siegle has continued training and gaining more international experience. At the 1999 Pan-Am Games in Mexico City, she won gold medals in the 400 and 800 meter races and a silver medal in the 1,500. "I felt I'd run good in this part of the world anyways," Siegle said. "But I know the best competition is on the other side of the world."

Siegle said racers from Japan, Switzerland and Scotland are among the best around the globe.

MeritCare already considers Siegle in the elite class, both on and off the rack.

"There's just not a question," Schaefer said, "We're committed to supporting her. We'd all love to go with her, but the organization isn't supporting that," she joked.

In her office, Siegle has an inspirational poem by Charles Swindell hanging on a cabinet. It begins: "The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of my attitude."

First place finishes and gold medals are out of Siegle's control. Her attitude isn't. "A winner is doing the best you can," she said.

"That doors have opened for me is an incredible thing, but that's just one part of my life...it's about developing who you are and working hard."

Judy Siegle of Fargo will compete in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, Oct. 18-26. It will be her second Olympic competition, following the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Ga., where she placed fourth in two events and fifth in another.

Siegle works out at Cheney Field in South Fargo.

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