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'I’ve never seen anything like it’: Mount Airy’s Daniel Romanchuk setting records, emerging as one of world’s top parathletes

In a span of seven months, Daniel Romanchuk won the men’s wheelchair division races in four top-flight marathons. Buying his first home in Illinois has proven to be just as challenging for the Maryland native.

“I think they’re very different, but both difficult,” he quipped about competing in races and becoming a homeowner. “With the house, I have found that autopay is a wonderful thing. There’s just lots of things to keep on top of.”

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Romanchuk, who grew up in Mount Airy, has made quick work of getting to the top of the parathlete mountain. He holds championships from marathons in Chicago, New York, Boston and London, winning four of the Abbott World Marathon Majors’ six races. He finished second in Tokyo in March and fifth in Berlin in September.

Romanchuk, 20, became the first American male and the youngest to win New York since the event introduced a wheelchair division in 2000. He captured the Boston title in 1 hour, 21 minutes and 36 seconds, the fastest time ever by an American. His victory in London in 1:33:38 secured the World Para Athletics Marathon Championships crown, cementing his status as a world champion.

NBC Sports analyst Josh Cox called Romanchuk “the greatest push-rim wheelchair athlete I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“What he’s been able to do at 20 years old is really unprecedented,” said Cox, a four-time U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier and three-time U.S. national team member who is the American record holder in the 50K. “On the women’s side, we had [Clarksville’s] Tatyana McFadden who dominated the sport for a decade, and she’s wonderful. We’ve had [Switzerland’s] Marcel Hug, who is an amazing athlete in his own right and has done some amazing things.

"But for Daniel to have accomplished what he’s already accomplished at the age of 20, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Cox said his awe is rooted in Romanchuk’s youth.

“Whether it’s running or cycling or push-rim or swimming, your age is really an asset because you’re building up years of training and years of work and your aerobic capacity gets greater,” he said. “So the engine gets bigger. The big question is, does the chassis hold up? Can he stay injury-free?

“Ten years from now, we could be in a spot where we’re talking about a 30-year-old Daniel Romanchuk being the greatest there ever was and is. And we’re talking about a career that could span another 20 years until he’s 40.”

Daniel Romanchuk of USA on his way to winning the Men's Elite Wheelchair race during the Virgin Money London Marathon on April 28, 2019 in London, England.
Daniel Romanchuk of USA on his way to winning the Men's Elite Wheelchair race during the Virgin Money London Marathon on April 28, 2019 in London, England. (Stephen Pond / Getty Images)

Romanchuk’s feats have caught the attention of ESPN. The cable sports giant named him one of four candidates to be named the Best Male Athlete with a Disability at the annual ESPYS award show. The honor went to U.S. paratriathlete Mark Barr on Wednesday night.

Romanchuk called the nomination “a huge honor” that brings attention to parathletes.

“I think it kind of does, yes,” he said. “I haven’t thought too much about that, but I believe so. It’s great that there are categories for everyone there for the same awards.”

Born with spina bifida, a spinal cord defect, Romanchuk began taking part in adaptive sports through Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Bennett Blazers in Baltimore at the age of 2. Four years ago, he and his mother Kim moved to Champaign, Ill., so that he could learn from former Paralympian and University of Illinois wheelchair racing coach Adam Bleakney.

Athletics has been a central theme for the Romanchuk family. Kim Romanchuk played college basketball at Oakland University in Michigan under her maiden name McDowell. Her two older children, Josh and Kathryn, swam competitively and played basketball for the Frederick Force, a team composed of high school students who were homeschooled.

But even the Romanchuk matriarch acknowledged her son’s recent success has been a pleasant surprise considering he dove into long-distance races in 2014.

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“I think the number of marathons and the track world records coming within the span of a year, that was sudden,” she said. “We didn’t ever foresee winning four majors within the span of a year. … But from a young age, it was evident he was a gifted athlete, and his brother and sister were athletic as well, and I played college basketball. So he comes from a family of athletes. But he was always coordinated and knew the parameters of what muscles worked, and he made the most of everything.”

Romanchuk acknowledged he did not envision holding four major crowns at the same time.

“Everything is coming together,” he said. “A while back, we kind of knew that maybe it was possible for these things to happen, but it’s a matter of everything coming together, and I think recently over the past year or so, it has been really coming together.”

Bleakney, who has been training Romanchuk since 2015, said Romanchuk has been blessed by long arms and a wingspan that measures 80 inches.

Daniel Romanchuk of the United States crosses the finish line to win fist place in the mens wheelchair race of the 39th London Marathon in London, Sunday, April 28, 2019.
Daniel Romanchuk of the United States crosses the finish line to win fist place in the mens wheelchair race of the 39th London Marathon in London, Sunday, April 28, 2019. (Alastair Grant / AP)

“Those are the genes that he inherited from his mom and dad,” Bleakney said. "So, that does set him apart. The value of a long wingspan and long arms is that you can effectively increase the ability to apply force to the hand rims. It’s a point where he ranks in the highest margins with the segmental lengths of his limb sizes.”

Romanchuk’s next objective on the international horizon is earning a spot on the United States national team to compete at track and field’s World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai from Nov. 7-15. If successful, he will almost certainly be a target among his competitors.

“It is kind of different,” he said. “I think there are certain different strategies that kind of play in now. … I think I have been in a transition from trying to stay in a pack to trying to figure out, ‘How am I going to place as well as I can?’ "

Kim Romanchuk said the wins have not changed her son, who has yet to skip a day of training.

“It makes me happy to see his hard work rewarded,” she said. “I know he goes about things in the right way and with the right attitude and just works really hard. So it’s always nice to see that pay off. But we’re always very mindful that he’s been blessed with a lot of opportunities and situations. So, that’s another thing that I’m just grateful for.”

No one has discussed taking aim at completing a career “grand slam” in the marathons or holding all six titles at the same time. But Bleakney, the Illinois coach, said he would never pigeonhole his student.

“There’s still potential for growth,” he said. “He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet by any means. But it’s been fun to see him evolve and make those steps in a very linear fashion.”

Despite his recent run, Romanchuk declined to say whether his confidence is an at all-time high.

“We all have seen kind of where we are and where everyone else is,” he said. “And even if it’s the next year at the same location and same course, everyone’s just a different racer. So, you’re never sitting still for too long.”

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Romanchuk’s reticence, however, was offset by Cox’s exuberance.

“We’re ready witnesses to greatness, and it’s really been fun to watch,” the NBC Sports analyst said. “I had a chance to talk with him last fall and again this spring, and he’s just a very unassuming guy. He would never tell you, ‘Hey, I’m the greatest in the world.’ But just looking at what he’s been able to do, I’m happy to say it for him.”

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