The Desert Challenge Games returns in full swing with athletes from across the world
It was a rough Desert Challenge Games for Zion Clark.
Competing in his first in-person event since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit in March of last year, the 23-year-old wheelchair racer finished it physically bruised and a bit mentally battered.
First, on Friday, in the men’s T54 400 meters at Westwood High School in Mesa, Ariz., his ratchet strap broke while he was racing, eventually leading him to crash and fall out of his racing chair and receive a disqualification via lane violation. That led to a local hospital trip where doctors checked him out and, despite some bruises, Clark raced Saturday.
His luck didn’t get any better.
During Saturday morning’s men’s T54 100 qualification heat race, his compensator had issues and for the second straight event, he didn’t reach the finals — finishing in 16.93 seconds in the preliminaries and placing 11th out of 18 overall. He remained frustrated but not deterred.
“I’m going to go back to the track, keep pushing harder and my next race, I’m going to be really pissed off. I’m really pissed off already. So, I’m going to just get the fastest time I possibly can because I’m a lot faster than what I’ve shown today. And everybody knows it, too,” says Clark, who was born with Caudal Regression Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder where the lower spine doesn’t fully form before birth.
In Clark’s case, he’s missing the lower half of his spine and the lower half of his body. “I feel like I let people down, and I feel like I need to come back stronger.”
A Los Angeles resident, Clark was one of hundreds of athletes competing in the May 26-30 Desert Challenge Games in Arizona this past week. A multi-day competition for national and international athletes with physical, visual or intellectual disabilities, the Games featured air gun, archery, track and field and swimming events, with the track and field portion also serving as a qualifying event for the upcoming Aug. 24-Sept. 5 Tokyo Paralympics in Japan.
Athletes came from all over — different areas of the United States, along with Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Canada, Nigeria, Ghana and more.
That athlete field also included 22-year-old U.S. Paralympian wheelchair racer Daniel Romanchuk, who is using the Desert Challenge Games to help him get back into a racing routine. A Mount Airy, Md., resident, Romanchuk won all his events.
On Saturday, he won the men’s T54 100 in 14.54 seconds, defeating the U.S.’ Erik Hightower by .14 seconds, and took the men’s T54 800 in 1 minute, 44.93 seconds, defeating the U.S. Tyler Barnes by 2.04 seconds. Then, on Sunday, he took the men’s T53/54 20-plus 5,000, winning in 11:38.82, finishing 3.59 seconds ahead of Byers, and took the men’s T54 400, finishing in 48.08 seconds to defeat Hightower (51.60 seconds).
“It’s great to get here and to see everyone, see the younger generation and see the future of the sport. Also, just heading into the Games, just want to kind of get back into the kind of a routine travel and competition, call times, all that good stuff,” says Romanchuk, who just raced in Switzerland a week prior. “It’s a pretty good track here. And so, yeah, it’s great to be here.”
Lauren Fields definitely agreed with Romanchuk. A 15-year-old Spokane, Wash., resident, she competed in her first Desert Challenge Games.
“It’s really big and I like that cause there’s a lot of people,” said Fields, who has cerebral palsy. “You get to meet people and see more races than you would usually, which is really cool.”
A wheelchair track athlete, Fields won Friday’s women’s 16-and-under T33/34 800, finishing in 2:34.73 — more than 11 seconds ahead of the U.S.’ Elicia Meairs.
Fields placed second in two races. She finished runner-up in Friday’s girls’ 14-16 T34 200. Meairs won in 38.77 seconds, while Fields finished in a personal-best 38.88 seconds.
Meairs also was runner-up in the women’s 16-and-under T34 100 on Sunday, as she finished in 21.55 seconds compared to Fields’ 21.92 seconds.
But Fields received more good news during the meet.
“I got my international classification this week, which was super cool,” she said. “I didn’t expect to get it. I was pretty happy about that.”
That means the incoming high school sophomore gets to go to June’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis now and can compete in the T34 division.
Clark also plans on competing in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials. As for his Desert Challenge Games experience, he’s just glad to find out what doesn’t work on his chair right now rather than at the trials.
“At the trials, I would’ve been crushed. So right now, today, yesterday, this is the time for mistakes because that’s how I’m going to learn to get better. But after this, there can be no more mistakes,” Clark says. “To be a professional, you can’t make constant mistakes. Being a professional is about consistency.”
For more information and full results, visit arizonadisabledsports.com/thegames.