How Paralympians Amanda McGrory And Allysa Seely Overcame Health Challenges On Their Journey to Making Team USA
by Lisa Costantini
Allysa Seely poses at the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on November 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
Paralympians Amanda McGrory and Allysa Seely have had a rough year when it comes to their health — but not for the same reasons as the rest of the world.
Seely has persevered through multiple health challenges and scares over this past year, eventually punching her ticket to Tokyo earlier this month.
The paratriathlete is no stranger to health issues.
Not long after competing in her first able-bodied triathlon in 2008, she started to have unexplained neurological symptoms including headaches and dizziness that developed into chronic pain and partial paralysis.
Despite her sudden health challenges, she joined the triathlon team at Arizona State University and was nationally ranked before receiving a devastating diagnosis in 2010, which ultimately led to the loss of her left leg below the knee. Eight months later she became the first person with a disability to compete in the Collegiate National Championships. And in 2012 she made her debut as an elite paratriathlete — earning a bronze medal at world championships. Now a three-time world champion she has gone on to win a total of six world championship medals.
Along with those victories, there were setbacks.
“My latest and biggest adversity leading into these Games is I was diagnosed with endocarditis [inflammation], and blood clots in my heart,” the 32-year-old said. “Both were very severe and had the chance of ending my road to Tokyo.”
Seely had long dreamed of defending her gold medal win from 2016, the first time triathlon was included as a medal event at the Paralympic Games. (She also competed in track and field, coming in 6th in the T36 200m.)
“That one diagnosis could have changed the dream that I have had for almost five years now,” she said. “There are definitely some hard days — and days it would have been easier to just give up.”
But even with her health battles, and the news of Tokyo’s postponement, “there was always that little fire still within me that I wanted to be in Tokyo,” she said. That flame got her through treatment, back to training and eventually competing to earn her spot.
Seely credits her doctors and health providers — along with a close circle of friends — with pushing her through. This support combined with self-described motivation, discipline, and dedication allowed her to find the resilience to keep performing at the highest level.
Paralympic athlete McGrory can relate to the highs and lows while dealing with health challenges. After being recruited to attend the University of Illinois on a wheelchair basketball scholarship, she went on to compete in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro in track and field.
Coming home from Rio with a bronze and silver medal — making a total Paralympic medal count of seven, alongside 13 world championship medals — she started thinking about where she was going next and what she wanted to do. She decided to go back to school to get her master’s degree in Library Information Science, following it up with an internship with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) in Colorado Springs, working in the archives.
Not long after, she had what she calls “a rough couple of years with injuries.” Her most recent setback was in February, when she had to undergo surgery to remove a cyst — after accepting a full-time position at the USOPC.
Still hoping to go to Tokyo and compete at one final Games, the surgery required her to pause her training and focus on treatment and recovery. That break turned out to be “a blessing in disguise,” said the 35-year-old who lost her ability to walk at the age of five. “It gave me an opportunity to see what life was like outside of sport.”
Coming back after having raced and competed non-stop since 1997, she said it gave her a new appreciation for competition and her sport.
Newly motivated, the goal for McGrory was to get healthy and recover so she could experience the Games one last time. “Kind of like, one more victory lap on my way out. No pressure. No expectations. Just go and enjoy the experience for what it is,” she said.
With the news that she had made the team [https://www.teamusa.org/News/2021/June/24/Meet-The-US-Paralympic-Womens-Track-And-Field-Team-For-Tokyo] came the challenge of trying to juggle a full-time training schedule with a full-time career. But it’s easy when you love what you do — on and off the field of play.
Her job in Colorado allowed her to stay attached to the movement and the sport, “something that has done so much for me,” said McGrory. “I’ve been lucky as I continue to move through my career to learn more about the history of the Paralympic movement in the United States. It’s been cool to look back and see where we’ve come from — on both the Olympic and Paralympic side — and where things are going moving forward.”
With the archive office still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home meant she could “do a workout in the morning and then jump straight into my workday from there. So it’s actually been a bit easier than I thought it would be to carry on with training.”
The hardest part for McGrory has been “transitioning from an established training group — with two workouts a day and a whole coaching staff — to training on my own.”
Normally it takes a village — typically packed with trained professionals: physical therapists, massage therapists, sports psychologists, doctors.
UCHealth is part of the USOPC’s National Medical Network and is the Official Hospital of the Colorado Springs U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. They work to assist athletes with their health and wellness journey.
There has been increased importance on mental health as a critical part of overall well-being. Activities that have become effective mental outlets for Seely include spending time with her dog, tending to the garden she started during the pandemic and crocheting. “Those are the tools I use when things get really heated, to kind of step back and see the bigger picture,” she shared.
It also helps to have “an amazing team of friends that are always there.” And while they won’t be able to be there physically in Tokyo, she understands what Games organizers are doing to make the event happen. “I’m confident that [Japan] will be able to pull off a safe Games with all the guidelines and testing being required.”
“I’m very thankful to all the healthcare providers and scientists who have worked so tirelessly to develop a vaccine so that we can open up and get back to our lives safely before heading to the Games this summer,” Seely said, having received her first COVID-19 vaccine in Texas and the second dose in Colorado.
“The Olympics and Paralympics have always been meant to bring the world together — through peace and sport,” she further explained. “So hopefully these Games will be that light at the end of the tunnel … the start to the end, so we can all keep moving forward.”
Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.