In 1989, when a 6-year-old from Orange Park, Fla., made her Junior National debut, organizers wondered if they were witnessing the future of disability sports. Within four years, that girl was dominating the Junior Nationals. Last year, at 13, she became the youngest U.S. track athlete in Olympic and Paralympic history, and the youngest in any sport to win a gold medal.
Today, Shannon is challenging racers twice her age on their own turf, but her athletic career had an inauspicious beginning. Nine years ago, LeAnn’s parents, Ann and Lee Shannon, drove to a wheelchair sports meet with their 5-year-old daughter and a homemade racing chair. “We had never seen a racer,” recalls Ann. At those Orlando games, Shannon swam, raced and threw softball and club-kid field events. She also tried a three-wheel chair, a design that was not yet sanctioned for racing. “She loved it,” Ann says. “But she hadn’t learned to lean forward yet and she kept flipping the chair backwards. So we weighed down the front end by tying a bag of tools to her chair, and she raced around the track like that. Though they had no idea they were watching a future champion, the Shannons recognized a happy daughter, their only child. Having survived a car accident that paralyzed their infant, they were, perhaps, more eager than the average parents to cultivate that happiness. Ann and Lee approached a local Wal-Mart for fund-raising. Through contests and a crafts fair in the parking lot, the store raised $800, which Top End accepted as full payment for a racing chair. Two years later, the company approached the family about an upgrade. “They told us she was a really good racer and she needed a much better chair,” says Ann. “So they offered her sponsorship.
For a couple of years, Shannon competed for her own enjoyment. The turning point came, as it has for so many wheelchair athletes, while she was watching television. “I saw the wheelchair exhibition race in the Barcelona Olympics,” says Shannon. “I thought it would be really neat to be in the middle of the Olympic stadium running that race. I decided to train for Atlanta. That year, Shannon, then 9, placed second overall in the Junior Nationals. The following year she came in first, as she has every year since, setting records in every sport she entered. Shannon’s prospects were ratcheted up several notches when she started competing in the Women’s Open division. (If there is a Junior division in an officially sanctioned race, wheelers under 18 must compete within it to maintain Junior status; races without a Junior division are open to athletes of any age.) In 1995, 12-year-old Shannon placed third in the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Wash., edging out nationally ranked Deanna Sodoma by two seconds. The race boosted her confidence to play in the big leagues.
A few months later, Shannon won two silvers and one gold–and was voted Outstanding Female Athlete–at the 1995 National Wheelchair Track Championships. The following year, she placed third in the Gasparilla 15K behind distance greats Jean Driscoll and Louise Sauvage.
“That was a real thrill,” she says, “but the greatest was definitely the Paralympics.” After a crucial tactical error dropped her to sixth in the Olympic race, Shannon bounced back to take the gold in the 100, 200 and 400 meters, and the silver in the 800. Her 100 meter and 400 meter times were new world records.
For a year before the Atlanta Games, Shannon trained six hours a day, six days a week. Now, she says, she has “slacked off” to four hours daily. She maintains a straight-A average at Ridgeview Junior High, where she’s a peer advocate. Shannon speaks so casually about her impressive commitments, one almost expects to hear she’s writing a novel in her spare time.
Hungry to Win
Matching their daughter’s commitment with their own, Ann and Lee Shannon have gradually become coaches. They had always taken LeAnn to the track, timed her, and helped her train. “We spoke to people at meets, and we learned by trial and error,” explains Ann. “But at one point, she wanted to take racing more seriously and we just didn’t know enough about it.” In 1994, the Shannons attended a weekend coaching course taught by Marty Morse of the University of Illinois.
Now, Ann says, “It’s a full-time job.” Dad handles road training, and Mom’s responsible for swimming, weight training and track workouts. Both parents have attended her road races, though recently they’ve decided to take turns to cut down on mounting travel expenses.
How does the family manage all this togetherness? Let’s face it–most teenagers would rather limit time spent with their parents, and the feeling is often mutual. “My parents are really good coaches,” Shannon says emphatically. “If it wasn’t for them, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. But I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes it can be a little bit too much parents. “It isn’t always rosy,” Ann admits. “Before the Olympics, we were all on each other’s nerves. If it’s one thing I’ve gained from all this, it’s a very deep respect for coaches!” A 14-year-old who runs with veteran racers is an easy target for gossip. Whether it’s jealousy, suspicion or plain old ignorance, lots of people like to tear down a winner. Some in the racing world try to diminish Shannon’s accomplishments by writing her off as “gifted.” Shannon doesn’t deny that she has natural ability, but she doesn’t depend on it, either. “I know one girl who is as talented as me, if not more so, but then she got into guys a lot. I’m not saying I’m not into guys,” Shannon laughs, “but she stopped training. Before, she was almost beating me in the sprints, but at the Paralympic trials, she got her butt kicked. People who say, ‘She’s just gifted,’ aren’t looking at all the hours I put in.”
Those hours have been criticized, too. Some observers wonder if Shannon has sacrificed her childhood for medals, but she insists she has a social life. “I go to the movies and to the mall,” she says. “I play Nintendo and have really supportive friends. Lots of times they’ll come out and train with me. If they have 18-speed bikes, that is. If they have only 10-speeds, they can’t keep up.”
And, as with anyone who excels at a young age, there are those who question whether Shannon’s competitive drive originates within her or her parents. Shannon dismisses the idea, and considers herself fortunate. “I see lots of athletes who don’t have the parental support that I do,” she says. “If they had parents like mine, they could get so much more out of it.” Nor does Ann find the scenario plausible. “As headstrong as LeAnn is,” she says,” we couldn’t have made her do this if she didn’t want to. No matter how badly a parent wants it, if the child doesn’t hunger for it, they aren’t going to win.”
If Shannon hears the gossip, it doesn’t seem to affect her. She’s too focused, and she’s having way too much fun. And at an age often stereotyped as self-absorbed, Shannon already knows what it means to give back. She speaks at disability awareness programs, and serves as a peer counselor at Genesis Rehab Center, one of Shannon’s many sponsors.
Shannon’s long-range plans include a prestigious university, a career in science and the 2000 Olympics and Paralympics. High school starts next year, and Shannon hopes she’ll be able to maintain her training regimen. A lot of racers might be hoping she doesn’t.