A Few Minutes With Kelsey LeFevour
Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services
Vince Lara at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois spends a few minutes with Kelsey LeFevour, paralympian and doctoral student at Illinois, to talk about why she took up wheelchair racing and her experiences at DRES.
VINCE LARA: Hello, this is Vince Lara at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I'll spend a few minutes with Kelsey LeFevour, paralympian and doctoral student at Illinois to talk about why she took up wheelchair racing and her experiences at DRES.
All right, so I'm here with Kelsey LeFevour, who is a 2016 paralympian and training for the 2020 games. So Kelsey, I was reading your bio. And I noticed that sports wasn't really something that had any interest to you growing up. So how did you get involved?
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Well, so I didn't actually know that there were opportunities for people with disabilities to be involved in sport. I didn't really grow up in a town that had a lot of other young kids with disabilities. And I didn't go to school with a lot of other kids that were my age that had disabilities. And so I kind of always thought it was something that happened to older people, I guess, because that was sort of besides myself, like, everything that I had had exposure to.
And I was actually a freshman in college here in this very building that we're in right now. And I was introduced to Adam Bleakney, who commented-- and we laugh about it all the time now-- he commented that I had really long arms, which apparently is good for wheelchair racing. And he had kind of extended an offer that if I ever wanted to come and try out a racing chair that he would set one up on the rollers.
And I sort of brushed it off for a little while because I was like, well, I'm not really sporty, like, and kind of looking back on it, I kind of just thought that I couldn't be, not really that I didn't have an interest in it. And kind of as that was all going on, I was kind of navigating me just being a freshman in college. And I missed the routine of home.
And I missed kind of the close-knit group of friends that I had from high school and growing up. And kind of in just like being around the building here and kind of the other student athletes that came through the building, it also seemed like a really good way to get to know people. So it probably truly was a social thing for me, socially-driven early on because I thought that it would be a great way to sort of find a niche sort of here because it's really easy to get lost among 40,000 students.
So I was really struggling my first semester of college. And this became a great outlet for a thing that I went and did every day and then also getting to know other student athletes and people with disabilities. And it made a big difference, I think, in sort of my kind of acceptance of what it meant to be a young person with a disability. And it was a-- ended up being a great outlet. And it became something that I never would have imagined.
VINCE LARA: So you didn't know coach Bleakney before getting here. Because coach has a reputation obviously in the racing world. But so he wasn't part of the reason you chose Illinois obviously. So it must've been the academics because you weren't a sports person. You didn't even know what DRES was.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Correct.
VINCE LARA: OK.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I grew up in Chicago. So the University of Illinois is a state school. And kind of like-- I had these big aspirations of moving out to Colorado, kind of got the mountain bug and applied to schools out there. And then it was actually from the encouragement of my mom who wanted me to apply here. And I was very--
VINCE LARA: Just so you would stay close to home? OK.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I think so I could stay close to home. It was also more affordable being that it was an in-state school versus out-of-state schools out west. And I was very against it. So we joke all the time. And she very kindly only says I told you so once. But it was her that sort of pushed it. And I came down here all but kicking and screaming, which I think contributed to that really missing back home, which I'm not really sure how like being 1,000 miles away would have made it better.
In retrospect, looking back on it, I'm like, well, that probably wasn't the most solid plan. But it kind of was by chance and not knowing the reputation that this university and campus has in advancing wheelchair athletics, and wheelchair sports, and developing wheelchair athletes. So I always say I got lucky. It's sort of this, like, stroke of luck that everything just sort of aligned. But no, it was not sports-driven.
VINCE LARA: But speaking of sports, but you started with wheelchair basketball first, correct?
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Yeah, they started sort of side-by-side a little bit.
VINCE LARA: OK.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I think actually maybe by, like, a week or so, I had gotten in a racing chair first. But I did also start exploring wheelchair basketball, which was another great experience just in participating in a team sport. So I never really been part of a team before. And you get obviously the team aspect sort of in both basketball and racing. But the kind of having four other players sort of out on the court at the same time. And you rely on each other, I think, in a different way.
Not a lack of seeing that in racing, but just I had a jersey. I had kind of getting to know the equipment on the different-- two different sports, and then traveling with the team. And I got a locker here at DRES in the locker room. And so it was all these experiences that I had never had as a kid that a lot of kids do have, kids and teenagers and things like that.
And so a lot of those sort of nuanced things of, like, it was that I fell in love with both sports. But I also got a lot out of that other kind of secondary stuff like the jerseys, and the team gear, and traveling on a bus for 12 hours to different tournaments, and different races, and things like that, and just experiences that I didn't have growing up, which ended up being very fond memories when I look back on my undergrad experience.
VINCE LARA: Well, you talked about being part of a team. So you were on the 2016 Paralympic team.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I was, yes.
VINCE LARA: In Rio. So do you feel like that gives you an advantage competing for 2020's team?
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I think one of the cool things about particularly racing, and any sport, I'm sure, each quad is so different. And so I think that if anything, I've got the insight of that experience that makes it less unknown, I think, if that makes sense. So I remember kind of in the year leading up to Rio, it was hard to imagine what it would even be like, right? Like it's something that was just so beyond my comprehension, I think.
And so I think that there's certainly something to be said for having experienced it and kind of knowing what the process of making a team is like. I think that that certainly provides some sort of advantage, but also knowing that there's a lot of-- we've got a lot of young talent that's coming up, and seeing the sport grow. And in turn, the people participating is growing as well. And so it's certainly just as much of a grind. That's for sure.
VINCE LARA: Well, thanks for setting up my next question because I was going to ask you. So you're 30.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: That is true. I just turned 30.
VINCE LARA: You just turned--
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: It's like a big, big thing this year. I was like, oh, my gosh. [LAUGHTER]
VINCE LARA: But does that mean that you feel like you're a mentor? Because you have younger teammates. Like I just interviewed Alexa. And she's 20. So do you feel like you're in a mentor role? And what do you do in that role if you do feel that way?
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the really cool things about our team is that we are so diverse in backgrounds and past experiences. And then we also have a wide range of ages. So we've got kind of incoming freshmen who are kind of just starting out in their college experience all the way up to grad students, people that have already graduated from either undergrad or graduate school.
And so we've got this really diverse range of experience, which I think is really unique and really cool. And I think it works both ways. I think we learn from each other kind of back and forth. And so I think that there's certainly something to be said for kind of being one of the veterans or seasoned members of the team and kind of getting to share some of your experiences with our younger athletes.
And I certainly learned a lot from those that were older than me. I was so new to the sport that everything was just this, like, brand new experience. And I was really fortunate that I had some really great mentors that sort of took me under their wing a little bit and made it a little bit less overwhelming.
And I think that positive experience is certainly something that made me keep coming back. Like I think had that not been such a positive experience, the whole thing would have seemed really overwhelming. And I may not have stuck with it.
And so I remember that really fondly. And I think that that's something I certainly try to carry forward as our new athletes come through. But I learn just as much from them too, I think. And so it's a really unique and cool dynamic that we've got here. And I think that the mix of athletes and people at different stages of their sort of athletic and academic careers adds a great diversity to our program.
VINCE LARA: You talked about different stages of academic career. So you're getting your PhD.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I am.
VINCE LARA: In sport management.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Yes.
VINCE LARA: And so one of the things you're doing is you're researching the transition of elite athletes into retirement.
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: Yes.
VINCE LARA: Does that mean that this is the end of competitive sports for you?
KELSEY LEFEVOUR: I don't know if it means that. I haven't reached a concrete decision about that yet. But I do think that as I've kind of gotten older and been around the sport for a bit, there is an end point for every athlete. And sometimes, that means, I think, an end point where you're not necessarily competing, but you stay involved in the sport.
And so I think that that experience looks different. And that transition to retirement looks different, depending on how and in what capacity you stay involved in the sport. So I will say that the-- kind of that research focus probably is I don't know if selfishly-driven is the right word. But I do know that I will kind of transition out of competing at some point.
And I think that sort of as a sport industry as a whole, we could do a better job of kind of helping manage that transition process. You've got athletes that become so immersed in their sport, and it becomes such a prominent role in their life, that the thought of not having that can be really daunting. And it can produce some really negative effects, whether you realize it or not.
And so I think that kind of as a sport industry as a whole, it's certainly something that I'd like to see managed better. And I think coming from a program like this where I was given the opportunity to advance not only athletically but academically as well, and having the environment and the space to do those two things at the same time, were really important for me.
And I think that it's provided a really nice foundation looking towards what comes next. I think that's sort of the catch phrase that I catch myself using all the time that, like, well, what does come next? And I think that, as I'm sure that a lot of the athletes here would attest to, we're set up to have a what comes next because we've developed not only athletically, but academically and professionally as well.
And I think that's a huge credit to the support of the university and kind of the campus community. And it's made a profound impact on me. And I'm eager to kind of dive in to sort of wherever I land professionally, whatever that is.
VINCE LARA: My thanks to Kelsey LeFevour. This has been A Few Minutes With.