Redmond High graduate Steven Toyoji is a man on a mission for gold.
The 22-year-old University of Arizona senior will be traveling to China in early September to compete in track events of the Beijing Paralympics, a division of the Olympic Games reserved for the physically handicapped.
Not to be confused with the Special Olympics, which for the most part is non-competitive, earning the right to participate in the Paralympics against elite wheelchair track stars is the ultimate goal of a paraplegic or quadriplegic athlete.
When he was eight months old, Toyoji suffered from a rare neurological disease called transverse myelitis, which caused inflammation of his spinal cord and left him partially paralyzed from the shoulders down. Although he can walk short distances, he gets around in a wheelchair and has full mobility of his arms.
Toyoji, who has been racing competitively since 2005, earned his trip to Beijing by winning the Class T2 division (reserved for mild to moderate quadriplegics) of the Los Angeles Marathon back on March 3, posting a qualifying time of one hour, 59 minutes and 37 seconds for the 26.2 mile course.
The former homecoming king remembered his younger days when he struggled to satisfy his competitive edge due to a lack of local adaptive athletics programs,
“When I was 16 I started playing basketball and also did track, but it really wasn’t like a big thing,” Toyoji recalled. “In 2004, one of the coaches told me ‘you can actually do a lot of different things in track,’ and he introduced me to Northwest Wheelchair Sports (NWS).”
Once becoming involved in NWS, Toyoji could finally compete against other athletes and feel like it was a challenge. He soon after began to train on the track as a competitive wheelchair runner under the tutelage of local track star Jacob Heilveil of Bothell, who earned a spot on Team USA for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney as well as the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.
“We were real lucky… Heilveil would always help out with the junior athletes, and one day he started talking to everybody about the paralympics,” Toyoji said. “I had no idea it was even a possibility at the time, but he pushed a lot of kids to train really hard for it.”
And train he did. At the start of last summer, Toyoji began his push towards being a contender for the 2008 Games in Beijing.
“A lot of work, lots of miles, mostly just getting ready for the (L.A.) marathon,” said Toyoji of his training regimen. “I’m trying not to kill myself too much, just keep doing what I’m doing. I’m also weight training to lean me out a little more, and we’re either on the track or on the road six days week, with only Mondays off.”
GUNNING FOR GOLD
Toyoji has already put together quite an impressive wheelchair racing resume in his young career. In addition to the four corners of the United States, he has also raced in Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands. While he has had many high finishes thus far in his track career, Toyoji, more often than not, has been the runnerup, a statistic that he hopes came to an end with his victory in Los Angeles.
He has finished second the past two years at both the Bloomsday 12K marathon in Spokane and the Peachtree 10K in Atlanta, and also attained silver medals at New York’s Long Island 10K and Schenkon Marathon earlier this year in Switzerland. A lot of Toyoji’s success has come most recently, as he won his division of the Gasparilla Distance Classic back in February in Tampa, Fla. as well as the ING Half Marathon last March in Georgia.
The Wildcat Marketing major, who qualified for the games in the 400 and 800 meters as well as the marathon, considers himself a “distance” runner and likes his chances at the longer track events of the Paralympics.
“Honestly, in the 400 meters I don’t think I have a shot, I’m not a very good sprint runner, but the 800 I might have a real chance, and the marathon is my strongest race. I hope I can bring back a medal in that event,” Toyoji said. “But you never know who will show up that day, so we’ll see.”
A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY
Toyoji made the decision to attend the University of Arizona based on their adaptive athletics program, which is rated as one of the best in the country. He received a scholarship to play basketball for the Wildcats, but decided mid-way through his collegiate career that he needed to focus on his newfound love of track.
“I played basketball for two years, but I wanted to actually graduate and playing two sports was too much,” Toyoji said. “I (chose) to drop basketball and stick with track, and it was a great decision for my athletic career.”
The 22-year-old continued to rave about the outstanding, NCAA-level support that Arizona gives its adaptive players and coaches.
“They take care of the airfare, hotels, everything for us,” Toyoji said. “It’s been a great way for me to be able to focus and not worry about what the other things going on.”
A true Mustang at heart, Toyoji will always remember the Redmond community and particularly RHS for supporting him in his quest to make the Paralympics team for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
“It was just a great time in general, everyone there was so supportive, all my friends and teachers,” said Toyoji of his best memory as a Mustang. “It gave me the idea that I might be able to keep doing track in college. It was a great community to be in.”
As the L.A. Marathon Class T2 champion gets ready for what will be the biggest athletic event of his life, Toyoji made sure to thank those that helped him achieve his dream of racing competitively around the world.
“I want to give a shout out to my parents, my brother and sister, my entire family, friends and Jake Heilveil,” Toyoji said. “They’re always there for me and always pushing me. When you’re doing track it’s important to have that support, and it means everything to me.”