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Harry Houng-Lee has his eye on 2030. That’s when the 11-year-old will be old enough to race in the New York City marathon.
Harry’s family would often wake up early and watch the professional wheelchair racers in the marathon so he could see his own possibilities as an athlete.
Just before the pandemic, the Upper East Sider joined the Rising New York Road Runners Wheelchair Training Program, a free year-round program for New York City kids with disabilities ages 6 to 21. In less than four years, Harry has become a decorated racer, winning four gold medals at the 2023 Move United USA Junior Nationals. He set personal records in all five events.
He practices frequently in Central Park, and loves the feeling of the wind in his hair as he whooshes around, clocking in at about 20 mph when going downhill, he estimated.
“I get to go fast,” Harry said. “Wheelchair racing is a cool sport.”
In a city where accessibility is a constant challenge, the Road Runners’ wheelchair training program focuses on removing barriers. Working with the JDJ Foundation, the program provides custom-fitted racing chairs for the children — which cost upwards of $5,000 — and it also covers transportation costs to the weekly practices as well as the races.
For Harry, being part of the group has opened new doors as his confidence in the sport has grown. Besides traveling the country to national competitions, the sixth grader recently joined the track team at East Side Middle School. He is the only wheelchair racer at his school.
Harry felt fortunate that East Side, his local middle school, was fully accessible — and that it had a track team. He wasn’t able to attend his zoned elementary school, P.S. 198, because the multi-story building had no elevator. Instead, he had to travel to the Upper West Side to P.S. 333, The Manhattan School for Children.
Fewer than 1 in 3 New York City public schools are fully accessible to students with physical disabilities, according to a recent report from Advocates for Children, an organization dedicated to helping the city’s most vulnerable students. The group has been pushing for $1.25 billion to address major gaps in building accessibility in the city’s five-year capital plan, which is expected to be released on Nov. 1. (That funding would allow about half of the city’s schools to be fully accessible, according to the report.)
When Harry started at East Side Middle School, he never doubted that he’d join the track team. He’s well aware of “Tatyana’s law,” federal legislation passed a decade ago ensuring equal access to school sports for students with disabilities.
His mom, Jasmine Tay, reached out to the school about Harry joining the team, and said they were very “encouraging.” Still, she told them not to worry about the cross country season in the fall, since the team trains and competes off-road. She suggested that Harry could wait until track season.
But the school’s gym teacher insisted they could make accommodations, taking the more advanced runners on the road in Central Park so Harry could join, Tay said. They also changed the training routes so the team no longer used stairs.
“Harry was so thrilled, and I was so happy with the effort made for inclusion and just the attitude of the coach to make it work — not only changing the route, but also recognizing where Harry would be faster versus slower than the runners and building that into team drills,” Tay said.
“It was proper inclusion,” she said, “and I was surprised it was that easy — sad, I know.”
The joys of being part of a team
In practices, Harry enjoys zipping by his new school teammates on downhills and straightaways, though he’s not as fast uphill.
But he still enjoys spending time with his teammates he’s known for years from the Rising Road Runners wheelchair program, like Lucy Shannon, 12, from Hamilton Heights.
Lucy also learned about the sport when watching the professional wheelchair racers in the New York City marathon. And on Nov. 2, she’ll get a taste of crossing the marathon’s famed finish line in Central Park along with about 1,000 other kids in a 400-meter dash TCS Run with Champions, earning a medal at the end.
Lucy, too, had five first place finishes in Nationals in the summer.
While she enjoys the competition, that’s not the main draw of the program for her.
“It feels inspiring when I’m racing,” said Lucy, who is home-schooled. “I’m meeting so many new friends on my team.”
That team camaraderie is a big part of the program, said Marissa Muñoz, senior vice president of community impact at Rising at New York Road Runners. There are three coaches for the program, which had about 20 kids participating last year.
“I think it’s a pretty rare thing to have this extracurricular for these young athletes,” Muñoz said.
It’s among three programs run by Rising New York Road Runners where their coaches directly work with kids. The organization mainly works with schools where its free curriculum and professional development is used by school coaches who work with about 60,000 kids across the five boroughs.
Many of the kids in the wheelchair racing program, like Harry, stay with the program for years. Muñoz hopes more children will join the program and continue to build bonds.
“We’re just looking forward to continuing to work with them and grow over the years,” she said. “We want to see them reach their goals.”
For Harry, being around his cheering teammates gives him a boost.
“It makes me feel encouraged and happy,” he said.
And after Harry’s first marathon in 2030, he’s angling to go to the Paralympics in 2032, in Brisbane, Australia, where the Aussie-born tween hopes to represent Team Australia.
Correction: The national competition is called Move United Nationals, not Adaptive Sports USA Nationals, as an earlier version of this story stated.
Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.