Three years ago, Chelsea McClammer approached the starting line for her first race of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games when, suddenly, her coach began to panic.
Teresa Skinner thought she had prepared her 14-year-old dynamo for every conceivable thing that could happen in an 800-meter race at the Paralympic Games.
They’d talked about different scenarios, strategies and what to check and double check.
But then, as Skinner watched the athletes take their places at the starting line, she saw the TV camera approach them, stopping to zoom in on each athlete before the start.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God! I’m a terrible coach. I never talked to her about that,’ ” recalled Skinner, afraid the sudden intrusion would unnerve Team USA’s youngest athlete at the Paralympic Games
Instead of being shaken by her sudden sprint into the spotlight, however, McClammer ate it up.
“The camera got in her face and she kissed her gloves and waved to the crowd,” recalled Skinner, laughing. “I thought, ‘All right, she’s apparently not nervous.’ The grin on her face went from ear to ear.’ ”
Apparently it takes a lot more than a camera to faze Chelsea McClammer.
McClammer, a surprise to make the 2008 team, went on to reach the finals of the 800-meter wheelchair race and set a personal best of 1 minute, 51.88 seconds.
Since Beijing, the life of the Benton City, Wash., teen has been a buzz of training, school, competition, a comeback from surgery and all the things that go along with high school, such as learning how to drive and picking a college.
Now 17, she’s headed toward the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, with one eye on a full menu of event possibilities and another on her ultimate goal, the Paralympic Games next summer in London.
The Parapan American Games begin Nov. 12 with 1,500 athletes from 26 nations competing in 13 sports until Closing Ceremony Nov. 20.
McClammer will be a busy young woman throughout the event. She’s qualified for the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter races, but she and Skinner will pare that list as the event gets closer, based on schedules and how they feel about each race.
McClammer’s favorite events are the 400 and 800, but she’s comfortable in the sprints. In fact, she qualified and competed in the 200 meters at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships this past January in New Zealand.
The Parapan Am Games provide a good test less than a year out from the Paralympic Games in London. McClammer’s plan: compete in the Parapans, work on improving her times to peak about March next year — when she turns 18 — then go full force into the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials and onto London in August.
So, when she looks toward Mexico, she’s dreaming of short-term success and long-term gains.
“I definitely want to get on the podium,” she said of the events in Guadalajara. “And I’ve heard that my rankings are pretty high, so maybe a gold medal and also some PRs. That would be nice. And maybe some standards for qualifying for London.”
Because McClammer qualified in so many distances, she and Skinner — who’s been her coach since sixth grade for Spokane’s Team St. Luke’s program — haven’t necessarily worked on specifics for each event.
As Skinner notes, laughing, “It’s borderline ridiculous because she qualified for every single event.”
So, McClammer’s been working on starts, bursts of speed and acceleration, things that will be useful no matter the distance, while focusing on the 800 and 1,500.
Though McClammer prefers the longer races, Skinner believes her best chances in the near future are in the shorter distances.
In 2008, McClammer competed in the T54 class and was among the best in the 800 meters. However, since Beijing, she had to undergo back surgery for scoliosis, which has restricted the use of her abdominals and put her in the T53 class.
It just so happens that some of the top T53 athletes in the world are Americans, so Chelsea — whose legs were paralyzed as the result of a traffic accident when she was 6 — is still testing multiple events, trying to find the event where she best fits.
Though she’s set several PRs this year in her new class, she’s still on the rise. By the time London comes, she and Skinner hope she’s as competitive as she was in 2008.
After her surgery, McClammer admits she was too eager to get back up to speed. After six months away from competition, she was supposed to go easy the next three months, “and I kind of didn’t go easy and I hurt my shoulder a little bit.”
But, after physical therapy, she was off and rolling again.
After the Parapan American Games, McClammer will return home and go back to classes at Richland High School for her senior year, where she’s been part of the track and cross-country teams and played wheelchair basketball. She’s in the midst of her application to the University of Illinois, where she hopes to compete in track and basketball, while continuing to train for London.
In the past 3 1/2 years, she’s been all over the world for competitions, traveling to Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and now Mexico.
“I’m a lucky person,” she said.
When she’s out sick even one day these days, her classmates joke that she’s probably been overseas.
“Pretty much every day somebody asks me, ‘Where are you going next?’ ” she said.
McClammer hopes the answer is London next summer.