Kelsey LeFevour | C-U Women Outdoors

Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our local RuggedOutdoors community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Kelsey LeFevour, a Paralympic athlete who competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Name: Kelsey LeFevour

Ph.D. Student in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Tell us a little about yourself:
I am a Ph.D. student in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois. My research focuses on Paralympic sport, with an emphasis on Paralympic athlete transitions within the Paralympic ranks as well as in retirement from competitive sport. My interest in this area stems from my own athletic career, having been a dual sport athlete in college as well as an international competitor, representing Team USA on multiple World Championship and Parapan American teams in the sport of track and field. My proudest moment as an athlete thus far was competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where I was a 100m finalist and currently have my sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Born and raised in Chicago, I am a fan of all things Cubs baseball and am pretty sure Lake Michigan during the summertime is a hard sight to top!

If the weather is nice on a Saturday, what can we find you doing?
My day usually starts with a morning walk with my dog, Sadie. I am at work during the week, so on Saturday morning, while the weather is nice, it a great time to get outside with her!

You didn’t get into the sport of wheelchair racing until you started attending the U of I, what drew you to the sport at that time in your life?
It happened out of luck – as I often say. I enrolled at the University of Illinois without knowing anything about the history of the wheelchair athletics program. During those first few weeks, I went through the transition difficulties that many do in adjusting to the college experience. I was really homesick and I missed my family and friends a lot. I was introduced to Adam Bleakney, the head coach for the wheelchair track and road racing team, and he extended an offer to come and try out a racing chair. I had not thought much of it – I really never thought of myself as being particularly sporty! – but I loved it and kept coming back.

What was the most challenging part when you were first getting started with your race training?
The whole world of sport was so brand new to me so I feel like a lot of the most challenging parts for me had to do with learning the specific details about the sport itself. I did not grow up with a background in track and field – I didn’t even know what all of the lines on the track meant! So, I spent a lot of time reading about the sport of track and field. I am fortunate that my start in the sport of wheelchair track happened here on the Urbana-Champaign campus because I have been surrounded by some of the greatest athletes in the sport since the very beginning. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from them.

You competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio for Team USA, what was the highlight of that experience?
My 100m prelim was on the first day of competition, during the morning session. I had gone to Opening Ceremony the night before and before I knew it, I was warming up and getting ready to go to the call-room which was about 40 minutes before my race was scheduled. I remember being in the call-room and feeling the enormity of where I was, trying to keep a straight face. We lined up, the starter gave the commands and the gun went off. 17 seconds and change was how long the race took and I finished third in my heat which gave me an automatic qualification to the final. Right after I crossed the line, I looked over and I saw my mom. She had this giant American flag and was waving her arms like crazy, screaming and cheering like crazy. She told me after that it’s not everyday you get to watch your daughter compete at the Paralympics. It was a moment I will never forget.

Growing up in the Chicago area, where and when did you first start skiing?
A lot of my family members live in Colorado and when I was in probably 7th grade, we took a family trip to visit. My mom had wanted to ski again and my sister and I never had before so we got signed up for lessons. Vail has an adaptive ski program and I was paired up with an instructor for the week we were out there. I spent A LOT of time on the bunny hill but by the end of the week, I was able to do a few runs with my family. I have not skied in many years but I am looking forward to getting back onto snow in the coming years.

Where do you think there needs to be the most improvement when it comes to accessibility in the outdoors?
It is not difficult to imagine making physical buildings accessible, either in modifying existing structures or planning accessible features into the planning and construction of the spaces. With the outdoors, there are places I think I had resigned to thinking I would never see. Increasing the conversation around accessibility by broadening the way in which disability is thought of – it’s more than the outwardly visible disabilities that we need to consider – we can hopefully seek to provide a positive impact for even more people in our spaces.

For individuals with limited mobility that are looking for a local park or outdoor recreation area that is accessible, where would you recommend?
When I was younger, there were a lot of questions that I never knew to ask and resources that I didn’t know existed, though I know the prevalence of such organizations has certainly increased substantially since my own childhood. For individuals with disabilities, I think so often word-of-mouth and talking with others about their experiences, what has worked, what has not is such an influential element in sharing information. Also, talking to local park districts or other community organizations about their offerings – sometimes there is even a division with regards to accessibility and programmatic initiatives for people with disabilities – and if there is not, it is a great way to look at how they might be able to expand their offerings!

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Good things come in small packages. My grandma used to tell me this all the time when I was little and being that I was always so much smaller in size than other kids my age, I think it was her way of encouraging me and making me feel like that did not matter in the least. As I have gotten older, I have started thinking about this in how I consciously take in and appreciate the little, everyday moments that are so often overlooked – the time I spend outside with my dog Sadie in the mornings, the crisp blue sky on my morning drive to work, the sunrise that catches your eye in the rear-view mirror after a long day, the nights spent at home with no plans, the good book. I have made a conscious effort to appreciate these little moments more, as they combine to create the story of our lives.

What’s at the top of your bucket list?
For the longest time, Machu Picchu was at the top of my bucket list and with the help of my family and a few amazing guides, I was able to cross it off my list two months ago! One of my other lifelong dreams is to be on the floor of the Grand Canyon and scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Is there anything you are working on right now that you’re most excited about?
Aside from racing and teaching this semester, the biggest project I am working on is my dissertation! I have had a busy last few months with racing competitions – Parapan American Games in August and World Championships in November – which each required being away for several weeks at a time. Finding a balance has been an ongoing journey for me – which sometimes means working from the airport between flights! I am excited about the research I am doing, which looks at the transition of elite athletes as they look towards retirement from sport. This process can be troublesome for athletes as so much of their identity is often wrapped up in their athletic careers so understanding the processes and systems in place to aid in this is important in the field of sport management. I am enjoying this project while also continuing my efforts to improving my teaching and maintaining involvement in other organizations in the field of disability sport that I am passionate about.