Former Barrow resident to try out for U.S. Paralympics Team

Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2000

BARROW -- Shirley Reilly is no quitter.

The 15-year-old Eskimo, one of the fastest women in a wheelchair, has her sights set on the Olympics to be held this fall in Sydney, Australia.

This month Reilly, originally from Barrow, is headed to New London, Conn., for the National Paralympic Trials, where she may well become a member of the Olympic team.

Shirley was born in Alaska six weeks premature. The need to be near medical facilities that could repair some of the congenital damage to her spine forced Shirley's family to move to Los Gatos, Calif., where her father Kevin and mother Dora Aiken Reilly run a glass shop.

``Shirley has a really good attitude, and a lot of heart. I don't want to jinx it. But I think she's going to go to the Olympics,'' her father said.

Shirley trains at least 12 to 15 miles a day, six days a week, to stay in shape for competition. She has placed first or second in seven major races over the past 2 1/2 years. She holds the national record in the 5,000-meter wheelchair race with a time of 15 minutes, 26.6 seconds.

Amateur competition on Shirley's level is expensive. A new racing chair can cost around $5,000. Shirley's mother also must travel with her.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. is helping out. The native corporation recently purchased her a new chair. Family friend Evelyn Stanford of Anchorage has been in charge of fund-raising.

``I just think it is great that we could have somebody representing Alaska and the Eskimo people competing in the Olympics,'' Stanford said.

While wheelchair sports don't pay off with the big endorsements like other sports, Shirley may get a college scholarship out of it.

``Lots of colleges are starting to support wheelchair sports and Shirley has been approached for a scholarship by the University of Arizona,'' her father said.

Shirley is hoping to compete in several national and international competitions in the next year, including the Para Olympics in Sydney, Australia, this October; the Junior Para Olympics in South Africa next April; and another in South Africa during the same month.

``We would really like to thank the people who have contributed to getting Shirley this far,'' her father said. ``I hope this fall we can see Shirley on TV competing in the Olympics, that would really be cool.''

Shirley is not the only Alaskan to make an impact in wheelchair sports.

Joe Tompkins of Juneau is currently a member of the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team, where he won a gold medal in the downhill race in the first sanctioned Disabled World Cup event Dec. 7 in Breckenridge, Colo. Don Brandon of Juneau is one of the founders of the Midnight Sun Wheelchair Marathon, a 360-mile race every July from Fairbanks to Anchorage. And Jesse Owens of Palmer is the inventor of the Kili-Cart, a modified wheelchair that let him climb peaks such as Mount Kilimanjaro.

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