Nebraska City's Madsen racing faster than ever ahead of Tokyo Paralympic Games

Kirt Manion
Nebraska City News-Press
Cheri Madden qualified for the Paralympic Games at Tokyo in both the 100 and 400 meter races.
Paralympic wheelchair  racer Cheri Madsen, right, battles  against Tatyana McFadden in the 400 meters at the U.S. Trials.

Elite athletic ability and advancing age don’t go together. Seems to be a correct statement.

Now explain that to Nebraska City’s Paralympic wheelchair racer Cheri Madsen.

The 44-year-old recently qualified for her fourth Paralympic games and is racing faster than she ever has before.

“I am 44 and faster than ever. It’s a miracle,” she said.

The Paralympic story for Cheri began back in 1996 at Atlanta and continued four years later at the games in Sydney, Australia. She won silver at Atlanta for the 100 meters and 200 meters and took bronze in the 400 meters and 800 meters. She added silver at Sydney in the 200 and grabbed gold for both the 100 and 200.

And the story could have ended right there. It appeared that it had ended. 

She left the racing stage, began a life and built a family.

Her racing story was far from over, however. She came out of retirement in 2013 and raced again. But how much would she be able to do? Answer: A LOT.

It should be mentioned that racing doesn’t mean just competing at a qualifying event for the Paralympics ever four years. Madsen races seasons of competitions and grinds to maintain her place on the U.S. team for the years in between games.

Coming out of retirement in 2013 was a decision followed by years of commitment with no guarantee. She made the commitment and she got ready. On the way to the 2016 Rio Games, Madsen won bronze for the 200 and 400 at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2013. She won silver in the 400 and bronze in the 800 at the Parapan American Games in 2015. And yes, she qualified for the Rio Games where she won another silver medal, this time in the 400 meters.

This would again be the perfect place to write the story’s final sentence. 

Not done yet.

She had came back to racing in 2013 so her kids could watch her race at the Paralympics in person. The family wasn’t able to go to the Rio Games and really wanted to go to Tokyo.

But to do the whole thing again, that would take a level of commitment and faith that went beyond what Cheri had ever done before. She did all the usual things to get ready, racing for years, and had gotten to the point of starting to make arrangements for her family to attend the Tokyo Games.

She raced at Worlds in November of 2019. She was prepared. Her body was right and confidence was high.

Then COVID-19 struck.

Madsen said there was a degree of uncertainty mixed with hope in the initial stages of the pandemic. The pandemic was bad, of course, but no one knew how long it would last. Maybe it would be OK and the games would happen as scheduled in 2020. 

We know that didn’t happen.

The games were called off, moved to 2021. And that meant a year of uncertainty. It was a year where Madsen couldn’t compete and thereby gauge herself against the other racers.

The pandemic continued on and the possibility existed that the games would be called off again in 2021, maybe called off entirely with the Paralympics focusing instead on 2024.

It would be a lot to handle for anyone. And it wasn’t easy for Madsen.

She listened to her coaches, who told her to trust the process and continue to push towards her goal.

When the U.S. Trials came this year, it was to be just the second competition for Madsen in a build up that normally includes a list of events.

“I was a heck of a lot more confident last year than I was this year,” she said. “I just didn’t know. I was so unsure.”

In order to get her goal of Tokyo, Madsen, who raced in the 100 and the 400 at the U.S. Trials, would need a top three finish and meet a standard, meaning that she needed a performance that compared well with performances for all events, not only against U.S. results, but also international results.

It would be possible for an athlete to win an event at the U.S. Trials, not get needed standard and then be home for the Paralympics instead of going for the gold in Tokyo. In fact, it happened for a long jumper who won and set a U.S. record but didn’t meet the standard.

What happened next was a bit of magic. 

Madsen finished second in the 400, narrowly off the pace of super star and 16-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden. Madsen’s race time was a personal best.

Madsen was just as good in the 100, finishing even closer to the leader, 1/100th of a second off the pace of Hannah Dederick.

That was amazing—and even Madsen said she was a little shocked by it. 

“To make a U.S. Paralympic team is one of the hardest things to do,” said Madsen.

Time to celebrate, right? 

Cheri’s got no time for such things.

“I still have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time,” Madsen said. “I qualified. Now I have to medal.”

There are specific skills that need to be addressed and refined. And if that was all there was to do, it would be a lot.

It’s not all. 

While many Americans feel COVID-19 lifting as the vaccines are deployed, the world community is still very much struggling with this pandemic.

A small percentage of the population in Tokyo has been vaccinated against COVID-19. The entire world community is converging on the city. And the athletes could carry more transmissible strains of the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s going to be different,” Madsen said.

First off, the Madsen family won’t get to go to the games this year. The virus won’t allow for that.

The only fans that will be allowed will be local residents. And they won’t be allowed to cheer.

While Madsen competes under pressure and in a quiet stadium, her family will be back in Nebraska making a memory that, for most parents, is a big right of passage. Madsen’s daughter, Reese, who graduated in May, is now heading for college in August. And Cheri won’t be here for that moment—the one where the parents drop their kids off at the college dorm.

Being without the family is tough enough. And, beyond that, Madsen will deal with a modified experience that goes beyond the fan interaction.

She’s vaccinated against the virus but not impervious from it by any means. She will mask and will change her mask every four hours. She’ll be tested daily. She will stay with a limited group of people. The athletes will not mingle at this year’s games.

The U.S. team won’t be practicing where all the other athletes practice. Instead, the team has rented a track facility and will train there.

Madsen said athletes will also need to download a tracking app for their phone.

There will be positive cases of COVID-19 in Tokyo. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Madsen is going to do everything she can to stay safe.

If the tracking device indicates that Madsen was in close proximity to a positive case, it could mean that she is forced to quarantine and miss her chance to compete in the games.

There are a lot of changes. There are a lot of restrictions. But at least there’s the chance to compete. And that’s good.

Still, COVID-19 is there. 

“We have been told to lower our expectations,” Madsen said. 

That’s pretty hard to do for someone whose life has been built around getting to this moment.

Madsen has gotten this far. She’s not going to let anything stop the journey now. 

She chooses to stay positive.

“It will be an experience that I will say in the future, ‘remember when,’” Madsen said. “When we look at photos in the future we’ll say, ‘that was during the pandemic.’”

And when the games are over, the curtain could fall on Madsen’s decorated career.

The curtain could fall. But will it?

She’s faster than ever before. She’s in the mix for a medal—maybe even gold. Why stop now?

Thinking about a run towards another games is beyond Madsen’s mind set right now. 

She can’t do it at this point. It’s too tough.

“I need to focus on what is happening in the next couple of months,” Madsen said.

Understandable for sure. 

All of Madsen’s fans will probably follow her lead and do likewise. 

But once the games are over, you would be foolish to count Cheri out of anything. 

She’s proven that she isn’t about to leave easy.