Sarah Bolton of Cold Spring Harbor nears the finish line...

Sarah Bolton of Cold Spring Harbor nears the finish line in the Division II girls 100m wheelchair event during Day 2 of the Nassau County track & field state qualifiers at North Shore High School in Glen Head on Saturday, June 1, 2019. She posted a time of 31.07. Credit: James Escher

MIDDLETOWN — Sarah Bolton will tell you that she’s tired of racing against the clock, so Friday’s 100-meter wheelchair event at the state high school track and field championships in Middletown was a dream-come-true for the Cold Spring Harbor freshman.

When Bolton, 15, faced Elise Hill of Adams South Jefferson, it marked the first time wheelchair athletes competed against each other instead of racing the clock at the state championships, according to New York State Public High School Athletic Association executive director Dr. Robert Zayas.

“When I’m racing by myself, there’s no one to chase,” said Bolton, who moved to Cold Spring Harbor from Chicago in 2015.

Hill won the race in 31.61 seconds, with Bolton second in 34.49.

“We’ve never raced each other,” Bolton said. “We just looked over (before the race) and said ‘good luck.’ There were no hard feelings about who won or not.”

Bolton also competed in the 200- and 400-meter races. She was placed in the outside lane as other runners ran beside her, but she wasn’t competing against them - only the clock.

“I liked it because I had someone to chase,” Bolton said.

Bolton finished the 200 in 1:04.39, the 400 in 2:11.15, and was named wheelchair state champion in both events.

This was the second year of wheelchair races at the state championships, Zayas said. Last season, Westmorland’s Jason Robinson competed against the clock in the 1,600. Wheelchair athletes win medals and championship t-shirt identical to those that runners and field athletes recieve.

“We realized that there was a population of kids that we weren’t servicing,” Zayas said. “By recognizing a wheelchair athlete in the same manor that we do able-bodied athletes, it really gives us the oportunity to work on behalf of a whole other group of kids.”

Zayas said he hopes wheelchair participation grows.

“We’re seeing positive momentum,” Zayas said. “Although it might just be two or three athletes a year, my goal is that, in a decade’s time, we’ll have 30 or 40 kids competing in this division of our track and field championships. The goal is to try and accomodate as many of our student athletes as we possibly can.”

Bolton hopes for even more competition in the future.

“I think it would be cool to have a whole heat of wheelchair racers,” Bolton said. “That would be really fun.”

Bolton has used a self-propelled wheelchair since age 3, mother Karen Bolton said. At 18 months, she was diagnosed with HBSL Leukodystrophy, a genetic disorder affecting her motor skills. She’s been in a wheelchair her entire life and has no independent leg movement. 

“Sports is really important to her, just in terms of looking after her body,” said Karen Bolton.

“We’ve always encouraged her to (participate in sports) and she’s gotten joy out of it, so it’s been a little bit self- fulfilling in that respect.”

Bolton has been wheelchair-racing since age 8. In addition to participating on the Cold Spring Harbor High School team, she trains once a week with the North Jersey Navigators, a Paralympic club team based in Bayonne. Last summer, Bolton represented team USA at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Youth World Games in Athlone, Ireland – her first overseas competition.

“Her outside coach provides the workouts for us,” Cold Spring Harbor girls track and field coach Nick Aurigemma said. “She brings them to us and tells us what she needs to get done every day. We just do our best to give her a safe environment to get that done in.”

Racing also gives Sarah a good feeling, she said.

“When I come off the track and people are saying ‘good job,’ I say ‘thank you’, but I’m still kind of in the racing mode,” Sarah said. “But then, afterwards, it’s cool to go back and say ‘wow, I’ve made an impact on all these people because I’m doing something they haven’t seen before.”

Bolton is also a Paralympic All-American in the shot put and hopes to do that on the high school level next year. This season, however, her focus has been on the track.

“People do realize (how hard it is) because they come up to me and say, ‘your arms must be tired.’ But, I don’t think they actually understand how much goes into it,” said Sarah of wheelchair racing. “You have to use every part of your upper body that you can use – core, shoulders, everything hurts after a meet.”

Hill and Bolton are teammates on the Navigators, making the matchup extra-special.

“When we were at state quals, we were texting and we were like ‘what was your qualifying time?’ ” Sarah said.

Bolton finished the 100 in 31.07 seconds, the 200 in 66.17, and the 400 in 2:08.49 at the Nassau State Qualifier at North Shore High School last weekend.

“One of the things that I think is really great is the way the other kids have embraced her,” Karen Bolton said. “I don’t mean from Cold Spring Harbor, because of course, at Cold Spring Harbor they’ve embraced her. She’s there every day. They know her and they’re used to having her there. But, there’s a lot of kids at those meets who’ve never seen a wheelchair racer in their lives. The way they cheer for her, come up to her and say how inspiring she is, how cool it is that she’s racing and what a great job she’s done, I think that’s a really positive thing.”

Bolton is an intense competitor, getting into a ‘zen-like’ zone before she takes off.

“My friends all kind of laugh at me for this, but before I race they’re all trying to have excited conversation with me and I just kind of stare back at them with a really straight face,” Sarah said. “They’ll laugh at me for it because they think I’m in the mindset of not wanting to race, but it’s more of a ‘I don’t want to focus on anything else right now except for pushing really fast’…The minute they start calling everyone’s name, I’m dead serious.”

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