A route to a gold medal is never easy, but for teenager Kira Stevens, it will at least go through the Big Easy. Her journey to the 2020 Paralympic Games went through New Orleans this year, as the 13-year-old ran her first ever half marathon at the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon & 1/2.
Stevens, a seventh-grader with cerebral palsy, got the idea one morning while her mother, Mia Erickson Stevens (an IRONMAN and USA Track & Field certified coach and director for Gulf Coast Multi-Sport) was leading the team’s track practice.
“My mom was training another athlete to run the half marathon,” says Kira, who lives in Slidell, Louisiana. “We joked about me running the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans a little and then decided that it was worth trying. I was super excited to find out that I could actually register for the half marathon!” Kira also signed up to volunteer at the Health & Fitness Expo where she assisted runners at check-in.
Mia, who coaches Kira, was thrilled that her daughter wanted to run in the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans. “Kira used to hate running. She even had a hard time walking and would always fall down.” After undergoing foot correction when seven years old, Kira was able to run moderately better. Once she discovered track meets, with their mix of competition and socializing, her performance improved significantly.
In addition to running (the 1500m is her favorite distance), Kira swims, cycles, and races in triathlons. Her typical training week includes several track sessions with the Gulf Coast Multi-Sport team and five swim and dryland workouts with the Lakeside Aquatics team. “It’s not unusual for her to train at the track in the morning and swim in the evening,” says her mother.
Kira’s training mix paid off on race day when she crossed the finish line and received her Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans medal. “I loved seeing all the athletes and the bands on the course. I did not expect,” she adds, “to get so many blisters and lose a couple of toenails.”
Completing the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon was a significant confidence booster for the teenager as she aims for two long-term goals: qualifying in track and field for the 2020 Paralympics and, then four years later, adding swimming and triathlon to track and field qualification.
“We are hopeful for the 2020 Paralympic Trials, but if she is not ready then,” Mia says, “she definitely will be ready for the 2024 Paralympics.”
“For my classification (T-37), the Paralympics only allow 100m, 200m and 400 m, so I will really need to work on my sprinting skills. I have a good base and can run a long way, but I need to work on my reaction times.”
Kira is currently training to compete at back-to-back qualifying events for the 2020 Paralympics. For the first time, Kira will race at the Desert Challenge Games, a World Para Athletics Grand Prix, this June in Tempe/Mesa, Arizona. “I’m going there to compete and qualify but also get classified internationally,” says Kira. She plans to compete in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 1500m on the track plus several swimming competitions.
A month later, Kira will travel to the 2018 Junior Nationals in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At last year’s Junior Nationals, Kira broke numerous records, including the national record in the 1500m and 3000m track events. She also earned the record for under 14 in the 3000m, 1500m, 800m, 400m and 100m, and in the javelin, shot put and discus.
Breaking records and qualifying for the Paralympics are not her only motivations to compete at the Junior Nationals. “It has helped me stay focused on my training and meet other para-athletes who I can talk to throughout the year,” she adds. Kira also follows the careers of several professional para-athletes, including U.S. Paralympian Scout Bassett who competed in track and field at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Kira encourages other teenage girls to try a running race, even a long distance like the half marathon in New Orleans.
“You’ll get hooked after crossing the finish line!” she says.