NEBRASKA CITY — At an age when most athletes have hung it up, Cheri Becerra-Madsen is mounting a comeback.
After once holding three world records, the now-39-year-old mother of two daughters is back on the track and back on the U.S. Paralympics team. Her goal is to beat her 20-something competitors at Rio de Janeiro and once again win a medal.
“I’m definitely the oldest one on the track,” Becerra-Madsen said, “but I’m a contender.”
Her main competition will be a fellow American, Tatyana McFadden, who was born in Russia and adopted by an American family and who is now considered the world’s fastest female in a racing wheelchair — a title Becerra-Madsen once claimed.
McFadden, 27, has won everything from marathons to sprints in recent years. She may be the most dominant female athlete in any sport, according to Cathy Sellers, the performance director of the U.S. Paralympics team.
But, Sellers said, Becerra-Madsen has a strong shot in the 400-meter race after her 13-year retirement.
“It still comes down to do you have the arms, the lungs and the heart to compete,” she said. “Cheri has the heart of a tiger. She will not give up and will do whatever she has to do to get it done.”
A native of Omaha whose family moved to Nebraska City when she was a teenager, Becerra-Madsen credits her late brother, Mario, for getting her back on the track.
Just after the birth of Becerra-Madsen’s younger daughter in 2006, Mario asked his sister — 15 years his elder — when she was going to start training again.
“I said ‘What?’ I thought he was crazy. I’d just had a baby,” Becerra-Madsen said.
But Mario wanted his sister’s two daughters, Reese, now 13, and Malayna, now 10, to watch their mother compete at the highest level of her sport.
“Some of his best memories were watching me compete, and he wanted the girls to experience what he had experienced,” Becerra-Madsen said.
Mario, 15, and their father, Mario Sr., were killed in December 2007 when their car collided with a train at a rural crossing just south of Union, Nebraska. Their deaths persuaded Becerra-Madsen to eventually launch a comeback.
After months of training at a gym in Nebraska City, the Ambassador Wellness Center, Becerra-Madsen placed in the top four at her first meet in 2013, even though she raced in an ill-fitting chair. Later she won two bronze medals at the world championships in Lyon, France. She was back.
“I knew if I kept working at it I’d get better,” Becerra-Madsen said.
She has been using a wheelchair since age 3, when she woke up from a nap and found that she couldn’t walk. An unknown virus was the cause.
She was a natural when it came to racing.
At age 17, she borrowed a racing chair at her first meet and qualified for the junior nationals.
Two years later she made the U.S. Paralympics team that competed in Atlanta.
Not only did she finish with two silver medals, in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, and two bronze medals, in the 400- and 800-meter runs, in the Paralympics, but she also got to compete in an exhibition race, two weeks earlier, at the Olympics. It was held just after the men’s 100-meter race, a showcase event that had packed the 83,000-seat stadium.
Becerra-Madsen finished third in the 800-meter race.
“The crowd just went crazy when I broke away from the pack,” she said. “Our uniforms had flags on the front. You could obviously tell I was from the U.S.”
In the end, two more experienced Paralympic racers, from Australia and from the USA, nipped Becerra-Madsen at the tape.
Her path to Atlanta was detailed in a documentary by Nebraska Educational Television titled “The Cheri Becerra Story: God Made Her for This Sport.”
At the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, Becerra-Madsen staked her claim to the title of world’s fastest woman. She won two gold medals, in the 100- and 400-meter races, and a silver medal, in the 200.
In a preliminary race in the 200 she set a world record. At the time, she also held the world records at 100 meters and 400 meters.
But Becerra-Madsen was engaged and wanted to start a family.
So the racing wheelchair was set aside. She became a stay-at-home mom, raising her two daughters with her husband, Eric, on a farm near Union. She also helped care for her grandmother, Teresa Crispin, who was battling cancer.
The sport has changed a lot since 2000.
Competition is fiercer, training methods have improved and the racing chairs are more high-tech. The new chairs require new positioning in the seat to get a more powerful push.
“That took some getting used to,” Becerra-Madsen said.
The sport is now dominated by new, younger racers, such as McFadden and her sister, Hannah.
“To come back in this sport and not be the fastest on the track has definitely been a humbling experience,” Becerra-Madsen said.
For a while she was putting on too much muscle. Her times slowed. Then, with the help of diet and her trainer in Nebraska City, Mike Kearney, she got leaner — and faster.
She’s now competing at 96 pounds, and is putting up faster times than in 2000, when she held three world records.
At the Paralympic qualifying meet, Becerra-Madsen pushed to the second-fastest qualifying time in the 400-meter race. She also qualified to race in the 100-meter and the 4-by-100 relay.
A record 4,000-plus athletes from 22 counties will compete at the Paralympics, which will be held in Rio from Sept. 7 through 18, just after the Olympics.
Two other Nebraskans, so far, have been named to the U.S. Paralympic team. They are Natalie Schneider of Crete in wheelchair basketball and TaLeah Williams of Norfolk in track and field.
NBC and NBCSN are planning to televise more than 70 hours of Paralympic events, the most ever by far.
Becerra-Madsen’s training has included workouts at the high school track in Nebraska City. Next month she’ll be working out at the Paralympic training center in Chula Vista, California.
“Starting out, making the team was my goal,” she said. “Now I want to medal.”
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“Cheri has the heart of a tiger. She will not give up and will do whatever she has to do to get it done.” — Cathy Sellers, performance director of the U.S. Paralympics team