Quadriplegic Athlete Races First Half Marathon

On June 4, 2017, James Sa took his place on the starting line of the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon. He took a deep breath and started to tame the butterflies; it’s not about getting rid of them—it’s making them fly in formation. James isn’t unfamiliar to a race environment, but this would be his first half marathon. His previous race was in 2011, and resulted in an accident that left him a quadriplegic.

That 2011 race changed his life forever—he was forced to adapt to his new reality and discover a new kind of mobility. James thought he’d never be an athlete again, much less one racing a half marathon, but he eventually found his will to push through and discover new opportunities, including wheelchair rugby and wheelchair racing. A grant from Toyota and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) supplied James with the gear and support required to train for the race, including a lightweight, high-tech sports wheelchair for easy mobility on San Diego’s hills. But that wheelchair was only as good as the athlete in it – James knew this, and was determined to be the best he could be on race day.

When the starting gun fired, James focused only on what would help him finish—pacing, hydration and technique. He ticked off the first few miles in impressive fashion. He felt strong; he had this.

And then the crash happened. While James rounded a corner, a group of runners didn’t hear a  warning of a wheelchair racer coming down the hill, forcing him to take it too wide and too sharp. Although crashes and accidents are inevitable, it’s what we choose to do after a setback that dictates who we are.  At the 12 mile marker, James’ race time read 1:20. There was still enough time to finish in his goal of 1:30, if help came fast.

“You okay?” the course marshal asked as he returned James’ wheelchair to an upright position.

James wiped the blood and road debris from his scraped shoulders and gave a determined nod. “Yeah. Let’s go.” One of the wheels was misaligned, but the finish line was within reach. One hour and 34 minutes after the starting gun and almost six years after the accident, James Sa finally crossed his finish line.

What’s next for the 27-year-old athlete? The sky is the limit. Sa continues to train in a variety of sports, including road racing and wheelchair rugby. He mentors other wheelchair athletes as well, using his story as a reminder to focus on strength and ability, not disability. Because he crossed that finish line, he knows anything is possible – and he’s set out to prove it.

For more of James Sa’s story, click here.