EDMONTON — Becky Richter lines up her wheelchair sideways to the field and slides what looks like a skinny bowling pin between the fingers of her left hand. Then, in a single fluid motion, she sends the club flipping and sailing through the air.
She threw 17.70 metres — a new national record — at the Canadian track and field championships on Saturday.
It’s a good thing that Richter is good at this event, because it’s all she has left for the next Olympics.
She had been focusing most of her training and competition on her best event, the 100-metre sprint where she holds the T51 class world record. But, in June, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) killed that event, the only race for her class, ahead of October’s IPC athletics world championships in Doha and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It was very, very disappointing,” said the 33-year-old from Saskatoon, who used far different words when she first heard about it.
“I cried it out, but I’m just going to focus on what I’ve got now,” Richter said. “I’ve still got something and I’ll give it all I’ve got.”
Being a T51 isn’t easy. Not as an athlete and not in regular life.
That’s why Richter has 11 tattooed stars down her neck, one for each year since a car accident, involving “a big porcupine” on a country road, left her with a severe spinal cord injury.
“It’s hard. I’m not completely independent,” Richter said. “I need a helper to get me in and out of my racer. I’m very lucky that I have amazing family, friends and a support system that are willing to give up their time to help me with that, not everybody has that.”
That’s part of why her 100 class was a small field.
In wheelchair racing, the lower the number, the higher the degree of disability. A T51 like Richter, for example, has no tricep function, while a T52 does. A T53 struggles with balance, while a T54 generally does not.
“In Paralympic sport, women with spinal-cord injuries are relatively few,” said Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson.
“Women with a disability are less likely to be in sport, but we have the same problem with able-bodied. There are less women in sport than men.”
The IPC cut the class saying there weren’t enough athletes, even though other classes with fewer athletes were kept, Eriksson said.
Losing the T51 racing class was “heartbreaking” for Richter, but beyond her disappointment, it’s discouraging for the future of Paralympic sport, she said.
“You want to showcase that no matter what your injury, what your disability, there’s a sport out there for you. So to take out one for lower-function athletes is discouraging,” she said.
The class was certainly small, a handful of athletes around the world, but the IPC didn’t give it much of a chance, Richter said. In 2012, they announced it would be in the 2016 Rio Olympics and then last month they killed it, she said.
“You’re never going to grow a class if there is nothing these girls can look up to and push for,” she said.
The IPC says T51s are eligible to compete with T52s but, given how much more function those athletes have, it’s not much of a fair or competitive option.
“My best time is eight seconds off their average,” Richter said.
Her 100-metre world record time set in Switzerland in May is 28.31 seconds.
She also holds the world record times in 200, 400 and 800 but none of those are Olympic events for her class either.
“I’m really looking forward to the Para Pan Ams,” said Richter, who always looks for the bright side.
She is expected to be named to the team of 35 track and field athletes on Thursday. She’s hoping to throw discus and club — and, most especially, race the 100 on a big stage.
Given the IPC’s decision, it may be last time she does.