Nebraska wheelchair cross country competitor hopes to inspire others

Nov. 2, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Abigail Harvey, a seventh grader at Conestoga Junior High in Murray, is the first cross country wheelchair athlete in Nebraska state history. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

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Like many seventh graders at Conestoga Junior High School in Murray, Abigail Harvey plays a variety of sports, including softball and basketball.

But instead of competing with her classmates, Abigail often has to travel 30 minutes to Omaha in order to participate with other wheelchair athletes through Nebraska Adaptive Sports.

Abigail was born with spina bifida, a type of neural tube defect in the spine. She doesn’t have any feeling from her knees down.

When Abigail was born, doctors said she would never be able to walk, but after more than 30 surgeries, the doctors have been proven wrong.

Today, Abigail is able to walk with braces for short periods of time, though she uses a wheelchair to compete in sports.

Being from an athletic family, sports was destined to be part of Abigail’s story, no matter her circumstances.

Abigail’s older sister is involved in softball, track, powerlifting and dance, while her older brother competes in basketball, track and cross country.

Abigail said her sibling’s experience has encouraged her to compete.

And while Abigail said she has enjoyed playing wheelchair basketball and softball, this year she was determined to join a team at her school and represent Conestoga Junior High.

She said it was important for her to build stronger friendships with her classmates.

“I really just wanted to be part of a team with my school because I had never really gotten to do that with being a wheelchair athlete,” she said.

The Nebraska School Activities Association had no previous record of wheelchair cross country competitors, but the sport had several competitors across the state this fall.

Abigail competed in four races alongside other junior high runners, each a little more than one mile long.

And in Nebraska's panhandle, eighth grader Michael McBride also competed in cross country in a wheelchair for Gering Junior High School.

Abigail said her teammates have helped inspire her to not give up when she’s tired.

“The girls have been amazing,” she said. “They've helped me. They've encouraged me, they've made me stronger as a person and as an athlete.”

Abigail Harvey competed alongside her junior high classmates at four cross country meets this year. (Photo courtesy of Conestoga Public Schools)

Ryan Burns is the Conestoga Junior High cross country coach. This season has been a first for him, too: coaching an athlete in a wheelchair.

Burns said this season was a learning curve, but he was able to develop a specialized training regimen for Abigail.

“We learned as we went, that's for sure,” Burns said. “The arms were different for me. I've spent the last six years, and eight years in college in high school, where we always trained our legs and our lungs and this was very different.”

And for Abigail, it seems the training has worked. She got faster throughout the season and already has a goal for next year: beating another runner in her cross country race.

“It was really hard at the beginning, because I realized that my muscles were not strong enough at first, but then they got stronger throughout the season,” she said. “And I got better.”

Abigail uses a special wheelchair for cross country practices and meets.

Instead of pushing the wheel rims as she does in her standard wheelchair, Abigail’s cross country wheelchair uses a hand crank and is steered using her ankles.

“We have a gearshift and so if you don't want to push as much you just slide it over and then it makes you not have to work as hard,” she said.

The wheelchair picks up speed pretty quickly on pavement. However, cross country races aren’t on pavement. They’re on grass and other rough surfaces, and Abigail said it can be a bigger challenge.

“It's a lot harder on grass than it is on the pavement, but usually I have a coach or a manager that runs along with me in case I get stuck in a rut,” she said.

Nebraska Adaptive Sports loaned Abigail her wheelchair for this season. The wheelchair is primarily used as a bike, that’s meant to be ridden on pavement.

Without any precedent in Nebraska wheelchair cross country, there isn’t any equipment specialized to go on rugged, grassy terrain.

But as she continues in the sport, Abigail’s mom Sarah said she is considering making a bigger investment to get her daughter into a more suitable wheelchair.

“We're looking into buying her one that will specifically fit her and be more specialized for her since she enjoyed it so much and she's hoping to continue to do it throughout Junior High and high school,” she said.

Coach Burns said specialized wheelchairs can range between $1,000 to $20,000.

The Harvey family’s ultimate goal is to get the state of Nebraska to recognize wheelchair cross country as its own sport with its own medals and state champions.

“Iowa recognizes it as a true sport in their state,” Sarah said. “They have a whole wheelchair division at the state meet and everything. Abigail's hope is that the NSAA will recognize it just like they have a section in track, so that she and hopefully lots of other kids will start being able to participate.”

Next fall, Coach Burns said he’ll be better prepared to coach and he anticipates that Abigail will continue to improve.

“Now that we've done all the courses and I'm familiar with the chair and her and her limits, next year she’s going to have a lot more fun and probably more success as well,” he said.

And while having fun and clocking fast times are part of the goal, Abigail said she wants people to know they can do sports no matter what their disability is.

“I just feel like, it's not always that out there for people who use wheelchairs to have sports,” she said. “And I just feel like whenever you have the opportunity, you should do it. And you should definitely take that opportunity. And it'll be really good for you.”