In 1990 the Iowa High School Athletic Association added wheelchair competitions in state track and field championships, however it would be a long two decades before they would receive a request from a cross country athlete asking to compete in a grassy, all-terrain cross country event in 2010.
On September 3, 12-year-old Eli Johnson, a seventh grade student-athlete enrolled at Bedford Community School, traveled to Corydon for his first ever cross-country meet. There would be no time for jitters on this day as he was the first athlete scheduled to leave the starting line competing in the 1.3-mile cross country event in his wheelchair.
The special racing wheelchair was powered by Eli using hand pedals with a continuous rowing movement that helped him power through the grassy terrain course.
“As far as we know he is only the second person ever to race in a cross country event in Iowa,” said Eli’s mother Kathy Johnson. “That competitor was in high school though where Eli is just beginning in junior high competitions.”
“And that athlete actually got ahold of Eli and told him to go for it,” his father Roger Johnson added.
Eli is no stranger to athletic competitions also being a member on a wheelchair basketball team based out of Omaha, Neb. where they finished third in the nation last year in the 2019 National Championships. He also plans to compete this spring in middle school track and field events. Along with athletics, he is involved in 4-H, showing pigs, chickens and bottle calves.
“He was really excited for today because his older brother also runs, and they’ve been practicing together and now today competing together,” Kathy said. “He also has three cousins running from Albia today so there is five cousins running together so it’s pretty cool.”
Eli crossed the finish line in 17:23:44 with spectators from all school districts cheering him on and while showing some signs of slight exhaustion from the tough race, it was hard to miss the smile that beamed from his face. Eli’s brother Noah, a junior at Bedford, finished in the top 20 in the high school event, crossing the finish line in 19th place with a time of 20:35:13.