Strangers Help a Wheelchair Racer (and Find Out Later She’s a Gold Medalist)
The mystery of the Chinese Paralympic champion in the New York City Marathon took a while to unravel.
The champion, Zou Lihong, was supposed to re-enact a great showdown from the Rio Games, where she beat the favored American, Tatyana McFadden, by a hair in the wheelchair marathon. But when McFadden crossed the Central Park finish line as the champion on Sunday, she hadn’t seen Zou for miles. None of the competitors had. Questions to a race official yielded no clue as to what had happened.
So where did Zou end her first competition in the United States?
In Brooklyn, halted by a flat tire near Mile 13, upset and among strangers who had no idea who she was. But they wanted to help.
Three of them were especially eager — a software engineer, a marketing representative and a young New York City police officer who grew up on Long Island but had never seen the marathon in person until he took up his post on Sunday.
It became clear pretty quickly that they would not be able to get Zou back onto the course. Typically racers carry a spare tire, but Zou had only materials to patch, not replace.
Salvaging the day, emotionally if not competitively, would require other tools. To vault the language barrier, Zou would have to talk with her new companions through a translation app. She tapped Chinese characters onto one of their smartphones, and an unexpected conversation began.
“It really was a cool New York moment,” said Cecilia Daley, a marketing representative for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals who had volunteered to be one of the bicycling escorts acting as bodyguards of sorts for the wheelchair racers, protecting them from errant pedestrians and whatever else might stray into their path. “I wouldn’t imagine it happening anywhere else.”
“这真是一个很酷的纽约时刻，”在辉瑞制药(Pfizer Pharmaceuticals)公司做销售代表的塞西莉亚·戴利(Cecilia Daley)说。她是这场赛事的志愿者，骑着自行车和轮椅上的参赛者随行，扮演类似保镖的角色，防止行人或任何其他东西闯入赛道。“我无法想象这种事会在任何别的地方发生。”
Officer Krystopher Valentin, 24 and a little more than a year into his job with the Police Department, had contacted the race’s emergency crew to help Zou return to Manhattan. Claudia Kulesh, a software engineer for Bloomberg L.P. and another escort cyclist, explained what Zou could expect by typing into the translation app: “They will have to take you separately from your chair.”
现年24岁的克里斯托弗·瓦伦丁(Krystopher Valentin)刚到警察局工作一年多，他联系了赛事紧急援救人员帮邹丽红返回曼哈顿。彭博资讯公司(Bloomberg L.P.)软件工程师克劳迪娅·库列什(Claudia Kulesh)和另一名骑行护卫人员通过翻译软件向邹丽红解释接下来会发生什么：“他们必须把你和轮椅分开，分别带回去。”
As the group waited for an athlete support van to collect Zou and her racing chair, the wind picked up. Zou shivered. Officer Valentin asked whether she needed anything. She said no at first, but he saw her lips trembling and asked again. Then he insisted.
He gave her his jacket, bearing shield No. 6350, and it swallowed her petite frame. In the middle of a crosswalk, the officer leaned in for a picture, resting his right arm behind her chair. Zou smiled.
“She was the most humble, sweet person,” Valentin said.
They talked for about 25 minutes through the translation app before the emergency car arrived. “She ended up manning my post with me,” he said.
None of the three knew that two months earlier Zou had stunned the field, and herself, by beating McFadden at the Paralympics. “It was an accident,” Zou said Sunday. “She’s better than me.”
In an interview through a translator, Coco Zhang, who works for China’s sports agency for the disabled, Zou explained what racing meant to her.
She is 32, five years older than McFadden. She contracted polio as a child and lost the use of a leg, but she didn’t begin competitive racing until 2009.
“Sport changed my life,” Zou said. “In China, having a disability is considered shameful, but sport shows it’s not.”
Winning gold in Rio has not changed her life, Zou said, but it has given her more confidence, even as she remains in awe of McFadden. “She’s my idol,” Zou said. “She’s a legend.”
An invitation to the New York City Marathon soon followed Zou’s Rio win, and she became the first Chinese woman in the city’s wheelchair event.
Had she expected to beat McFadden again?
“No,” she said. “My body wasn’t ready. I needed more training.”
None of the top contenders quite knew what to expect from Zou on Sunday since they had never faced her in a race with so many inclines. Rio was a flat, looped course.
The first mile, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, is the longest and steepest hill on the course, and Zou fell far behind at the start. Then came the flat tire.
The volunteer cyclists enter the race as the wheelchair competitors descend from the Verrazano-Narrows. The escorts aren’t allowed to cheer or coach, but they can jump into action like a pit crew to assist with a flat tire. Daley, who was assigned to shield Zou, realized her racer had fallen behind the pack and circled back to find her. Kulesh joined her in the effort.
Zou began the day with a flat, but ended it with a New York moment. Before saying goodbye, the group exchanged texts and shared the photo of Zou and Officer Valentin, making a big city feel a little smaller.
As Zou left Brooklyn in the van, her support group still didn’t know about the gold medal. Then someone looked up her name online.
“Only later did we find out and say, “Oh my gosh!’ ” Kulesh said.
On Sunday night, Zou returned to her hotel on Sixth Avenue with an overstuffed shopping bag imprinted with an ad from the new movie “Trolls.” She had been to Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret.
On Monday she was to fly home to China with her new merchandise and fond memories of New York and its people, despite her abbreviated race.
“They were very kind to me,” Zou said, looking at that photo on her phone. “I hope to come back.”