Opportunities Ahead For Wheelchair Athlete Peyton Gunnarson

* Peyton Gunnarson (front) is deciding between two NCAA Division I programs with respected adapative programs: Illinois and Arizona

Photo Credit: Submitted

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Few wheelers in the United States have as much potential as Peyton Gunnarson

And that's one big reason why the Lewiston-Altura High School senior, an adaptive athlete who competes in the T54 classification under Paralympic guidelines, will continue his track and field career in 2021. 

At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the 17-year-old will make his formal college announcement via Facebook.

Undoubtedly, Gunnarson has been afforded an amazing opportunity to choose between the University of Illinois and the University of Arizona, which are two universities, he says, that have the best adapative programs in the country -- Note: Adaptive sports aren't sanctioned by the NCAA.

"I have great opportunities," he says. 

But while he has certainly earned his place at the next level of collegiate track and field, don't think of this like a once-in-a-lifetime moment, either, because this almost seems par for the course.

Because there are plenty more moments to come. 

For much of his life, in fact, Gunnarson hasn't even operated as if he's had a disability.

When he says he's a 'wheeler,' for instance -- an off-the-cuff term bestowed upon wheelchair athletes by wheelchair athletes -- it comes across as an honor. 

"Daniel Romanchuk," Gunnarson says, "is the fastest wheeler in the world. He owns the world record in the 800m." 

But the high school senior has high goals, too: He hopes to make a big mark on his final high school season, with goals of breaking the 4-minute mile barrier in his racing chair. 

"If I can qualify and get there (to the Desert Challenge Games in Arizona), that would be an ideal situation for me to break 4," he said. 

While he was born with Spina Bifada, a birth defect that impacts the spinal column -- particularly, the L4-L5 spinal segment -- and has left Gunnarson paralyzed, he took to sports almost immediately. 

His younger brother is also an adaptive athete who has been impacted with Spina Bifada, while his young sister is able-bodied. 

For the last 10 years, Gunnarson has been competing in various track and field events. 

He's recorded a litany of incredible personal bests from his racing chair: 16.63 in the 100m, 30.49 in the 200m, 59.63 in the 400m and 1:57.4 in the 800m. 

"I'm definitely more of a sprinter or a middle distance racer," he said. 

And yet, he's more than just that, too. 

His distance times include personal bests of 3:53.12 for 1,500m and a 4:14.55 for 1,600m, even a 16:24 for 5K and a 24:38 for 10K. Even further, he's completed a full marathon, posting a 1 hour, 54-minute mark at the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth -- he achieved that feat when he was 16. 

"I do basically anything," he said, which also includes the shot put and javelin.

He's also competed almost everywhere, too. Events in Minnesota and Junior National competitions all over the place. Gunnarson says he's won at least 20 national championships and 10 state titles for adaptive events. He has a national record in the 3K (8:10.90) for his U20 age group, and he also has produced two all-time state records. 

* Peyton (far right), with his friend (second to left) and two of the fastest adaptive female wheelchair racers in the world

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And to think Gunnarson has done this mostly without exposure. 

He's grown up in small-town Utica, Minnesota, and has attended Lewiston-Altura, where he's challenged himself often and ingrained himself within the community. 

"I think it's harder for people to accept you intitially," he said. "They see you differently. But again, I've been fortunate in this community. Pretty much everyone knows me and knows about my disability. I feel accepted by most people." 

That normal teenage life? It includes being a role model for younger athletes. Gunnarson also plays hockey, and within the program he competes with, he's mentored those younger than him. There's a yearly adaptive camp he also takes part in Stewartville.

"It's super cool to do that and share your experiences and your knowledge," he said. 

But at the end of the day, Gunnarson considers himself an athlete. A racer. Someone who's going to challenge himself to meet the goals he's set for himself. 

The decision between Illinois and Arizona, he said, will be a hard task and possibly a transformative choice. 

"The University of Illinois Urbana-Champlain is where the Paralympic Training Center is," he said. "They have the fastest guy in the world competing there right now."  

"But Arizona, their adaptive sports porgram is the largest in the nation," he added. "It's the most accessible campus in the nation." 

All things being equal, Gunnarson's college decision will hinge upon where he's most comfortable. 

As a experienced wheeler and racer, he sees himself trying to eclipse his personal bests in the 100m and 800m in the near future. At both universities, he'll have adapative athletes to train around and bounce ideas off of. 

His next journey could be the first of many big moves forward. 

"At this point, I don't know if I"m ever going to break a world record," he said. "But we'll have to wait and see. It depends on how the next few years go."