Student Newsroom

Egyptian athlete seeks out Urbana trainers in wheelchair racing


Hoda Elshorbagy trains at the DRES gym in Champaign with a volunteer spotter on March 2. Elshorbagy came from Egypt in January to train in wheelchair racing. By Mae Antar

An Egyptian woman traveled to Urbana, Illinois, alone in January to train alongside Paralympic medalists in wheelchair racing. 

Hoda Elshorbagy began using a wheelchair after an Egyptian doctor administered her the polio vaccine as an infant, which gave her polio and left her paralyzed below her waist. 

She found her passion for wheelchair racing back in 2016, she said, but in Egypt, the resources to ensure her success in the sport were extremely limited. 

She said she was forced to train in traffic on the crowded, chaotic streets in Cairo but that her hard work paid off. 

"In 2020, I competed in all events from 100 meters to 5k, and I got first place competing against men as the only [female] wheelchair racer in Egypt," Elshorbagy said.

However Elshorbagy said she knew her environment still limited her chances for success in the sport. So, she said she began her research to find the best athletes, trainers and program. 

In late January, she said she found what she was looking for, and it brought her to Urbana to train with Paralympic medalist and Coach Adam Bleakney

Bleakney said he has had people come from all over the world to train with him. 

He said many of those he trained have gone on to win many medals, including Paralympic medals. 

"Our athletes have won over 50 Paralympic medals since … I came on board," Bleakney said. "We've had a number of athletes that have performed really well on the world stage, both the Paralympic Games and at other races, such as the Boston Marathon [and] New York City Marathon."

Susannah Scaroni, a 2020 Paralympic medalist, said she attributes a lot of her success to the community and resources at the University of Illinois. 

"An amazing resource that I've had here is [that] I've trained with the best athletes in the world," Scaroni said. "I had training partners who are medalists and world record holders … and now to give that back to others, I think, is an awesome chance that I get to have."

Elshorbagy is in Illinois on a visitor visa, but she said she hopes to attain a student visa so she can stay long enough to participate in her first full marathon in October.

She said being in Urbana gives her opportunities that are unavailable in her homeland.

Although she has a degree in history, she said, in Egypt, people with disabilities cannot get a degree in kinesiology. 

Pending a student visa, Elshorbagy said she plans to begin taking classes at Parkland College and then get a degree in kinesiology at the University of Illinois.

She said she will participate in her first half marathon on April 26. If she can stay, she will race her first full marathon in October.

"I [miss] my family, but for wheelchair racing, [there is] nothing for me in Egypt," Elshorbagy said. "So, I want to stay here until I achieve my goal and then go back to Egypt and make the change."