Paralympics: University of Arizona grad locked in on 2016 Rio Games

2013-07-14T00:00:00Z Paralympics: University of Arizona grad locked in on 2016 Rio GamesDaniel Gaona Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Steven Toyoji had the experience of a lifetime at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing but missed out on going to London last summer.

Now the 27-year-old UA graduate is on a mission to get to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

He says nothing will slow him down.

Toyoji, originally from Redmond, Wash., will be competing with the U.S. national team at the World Championships in Lyon, France, starting Friday. He will be in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter wheelchair races.

"It's a good feeling to be back on the U.S. team after a rough go the past three years or so," Toyoji said.

"I feel really confident on my times right now, and the goal is to get on the podium. I think the 1,500 and the 800 are my best chances because I'm more of a distance guy."

The Star recently spoke with Toyoji to find out more about him and his journey:

Who he is

Toyoji suffered from a rare neurological disease called transverse myelitis, which caused inflammation of the spinal cord, when he was 8 months old. Since then, he's been partially paralyzed.

"I can feel down to my toes and I'm able to walk around inside my apartment but there is partial paralysis from the shoulders down," Toyoji said. "My hand dexterity is affected, my walking gait is affected and my balance is poor. The muscles aren't as strong as they normally should be."

However, Toyoji said his childhood was still normal. He always loved sports and cheered for the Seattle-area teams. Then, at 16, he got into adaptive sports starting with wheelchair basketball and then track.

How he got here

It didn't take long for Toyoji to fall in love with track.

"I loved it. It was awesome," he said. "Just being able to go faster than I've ever been able to go with my walker or my everyday wheelchair was a great feeling."

Toyoji also had Jacob Heilveil, a former Paralympian, as his coach. That's who helped him realize his true potential as long as he put in the work.

"Every kid has aspirations to be a sports star of some degree, but I never thought that I would have the opportunity to be competing at this level until I got involved in adaptive athletics and until I met my coach," Toyoji said. "I never knew these possibilities were out there."

Toyoji went on to earn a scholarship at UA for both academics and athletics. He continued to play basketball for two years there but stayed focused on track and went to the 2008 Paralympic Games to compete in the marathon and the 400- and 800-meter races.

What's next

Off the track, Toyoji is working on a career change. He wants to become a child life specialist and will begin attending a graduate program at San Jose State University for it this fall.

While that is a long-term goal, Toyoji also has a short-term goal of getting back to the Paralympic Games.

He missed out on going to London last summer because he fractured his right femur in 2011 and had only six months of training to prepare.

Toyoji said his strength coach, Ron Curcio, helped him get back into shape and back into the competitive mood in that short time. But he just missed the cut.

However, all that work has him in line to get to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Toyoji said it's nice to be back competing at the international level in the World Championships this week, but it's also just a step along the way to get back to the Paralympics.

"I think I want to go to Rio more than I wanted to go to Beijing or to London even," Toyoji said, "so it's definitely a big goal of mine."

Contact reporter Daniel Gaona at dgaona@azstarnet.com or 807-7761. On Twitter @DanielGaona13

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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