When Ella Rodriguez got to the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials in Minneapolis last month, she and her coach Andrew Dela Cruz received news they were entirely unprepared for: Rodriguez was entered in the long jump competition.
“I went into the Trials training for the 100 (meters), 200 and discus,” the incoming Christopher High senior said. “I didn’t think I had qualified for the long jump, but I guess they somehow found a qualifying mark for me and I was in.”
Caught off guard, the 17-year-old Rodriguez made the best of the situation, earning a silver medal in the long jump and in her best event, the discus. Rodriguez, who was born with a congenital limb deficiency that led to the amputation of her right foot when she was 9 months old, was in the T64/F64 category, which includes below-knee amputees who compete with a prosthesis “where the minimum impairment requirement for lower limb deficiency and leg length discrepancy are met.”
Rodriguez’s experience at the Trials was a dream come true, as the event brought together the country’s best para-athletes with only a select few advancing to the upcoming Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Rodriguez hopes to qualify for the Games in 2024 or 2028.
“Returning with two silver medals with one in the discus was particularly exciting because I not only got second in my classification, but second in my entire heat,” she said. “It was the biggest meet of my life so far, and I did better than I thought I would. The experience was phenomenal.”
Rodriguez is consistently throwing the discus 23 meters, or in the 75 feet range. She’s improved “by at least 15 feet” in the last year and credits Dela Cruz for getting her stronger and giving her solid coaching in her events.
“Having that coaching and strength-training has made a huge difference,” she said.
Rodriguez knows what it’s going to take to reach the Summer Paralympic Games. Her mentor and friend, Jessica Heims, throws in the 34 meter range (111 feet).
“She’s the best thrower in the Americas and it would take me another 10 meters to catch up with her,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be a lot, but I’m young and the discus is an event where your technique gets better as you get older and get more reps. It’s a technical event, but I think I have the time to get there.”
Rodriguez credited Christopher High track and field coach Jeff Myers for providing her the opportunity to practice, train and compete in meets, especially in the recently completed Covid shortened season. Rodriguez wants to establish personal-records in all of her events and compete at famed sites like Arcadia in her senior season.
“My main goal is to dominate in those meets and paralympic meets as well,” she said. “I also want to help my fellow adaptive athletes at Christopher. There are three others and I’m hoping we can get them to state next year. I really want them to have that experience and open their eyes to see what they can really do.”
Entering the U.S. Paralympic Trials, Rodriguez had not trained for the long jump in the weeks prior to the event because she hadn’t recorded a qualifying mark for it—or so she thought. Officials of the event said otherwise, and unbeknownst to her, Rodriguez was placed in the long jump event.
Despite the unusual circumstances, Rodriguez performed well, chalking it up to getting acclimated to using a new blade she started using three weeks before the Trials.
“The new blade was actually a nightmare to learn, but once I got used to it, it helped me overcome that fear of being thrown into the long jump competition,” said Rodriguez, who competed in the long jump on the first day of the Trials, the 100 meter dash on the second day and the 200 and discus on the final day of competition. “The long jump, while I wouldn’t want to do it all over again that exact same way, was quite an experience and adrenaline rush.”
Rodriguez serves as an ambassador for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), giving back to the organization that she said changed her life. In 2009, CAF invited Rodriguez to attend the organization’s annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October.
For the first time in Rodriguez’s life, she saw hundreds of kids just like her—in one location, no less. The sight of kids pushing themselves in their wheelchairs and running with prosthetics gave Rodriguez a deep motivation that completely changed her outlook and confidence.
No longer did Rodriguez have to think she was alone in the challenges she was facing. As a CAF ambassador, Rodriguez is paying it forward. She will use any opportunity she can to promote para-athletes, the events they compete in and spread awareness and acceptance of the sport.
“It would be a crime not to carry an ambassador role on my shoulders,” she said. “It’s crazy because when I was younger I didn’t have a place to fit in and wasn’t aware there would be a whole community of people like me. To be able to show other kids and have them realize there are people like them and have their eyes opened to what lies out there is the greatest thing.”
Rodriguez said one doesn’t have to be an adaptive athlete or even know one to be deeply affected by the para-athlete community.
“You don’t have to be disabled to be impacted by adaptive sports and that is why televising and normalizing the Paralympics is important,” she said. “The Paralympics show the true heart of humans in general and how resilient everyone can be. It’s a universal message because humans need connection and having that connection helps with every aspect of our lives.”
Rodriguez’s all-around athleticism shows in her versatility to excel in sports other than track and field. She used to be on Christopher’s cheer and dance team, is a captain for the BORP Road Warriors—a competitive wheelchair basketball team—and is going to take up field hockey for the first time with Christopher this upcoming season.
“I had been wanting to do field hockey since I was in the fourth grade, but never got around to it because my parents were worried about my body and overworking myself,” she said. “But now that I’m not doing cheer, I have space in my schedule to take up field hockey and I absolutely love it.”
Rodriguez has come a long way. In a YouTube video feature on Rodriguez, Sue said, “She went from being a kid who would hide behind me and not be proud of who she was to somebody who would be running a wearing blade at school with a lot of self-confidence and proud of the fact she is an amputee.”
Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]