Arbor View track athlete wants to inspire others in wheelchairs

Cheyenne Leonard is used to people staring at her when they first see her on the track.

After watching the Arbor View High School sophomore compete in her wheelchair, the curious onlookers quickly become fans.

"I hope it changes their outlook on people in wheelchairs," Leonard said. "I hope they see we can do the same things that they do."

Leonard, 15, competes in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters for the Aggies. Her personal best times are 5 minutes, 55 seconds in the 1,600 and 12:27.7 in the 3,200.

Not bad for someone who had spinal fusion surgery 14 months ago. Recovery from the operation forced Leonard to study from home her freshman year, along with a hiatus from track and field.

"It’s really inspirational. We’ve never had anyone compete in a wheelchair before," said Arbor View senior Kourtney Willey, one of the team’s top distance runners. "She never gives up, and it’s really motivating."

Leonard was born with a broken back and remains partially paralyzed in her lower legs, but she decided at an early age that she wouldn’t be deterred from sports.

Leonard’s love for track and field took root at 6 years old, when physical education teacher Joe Shifflett approached her family members, asking them to consider Cheyenne’s potential.

"Joe Shifflett was her original coach who opened my eyes to what she can do as opposed to can’t do," said Andreana Leonard, Cheyenne’s mother.

Shifflett coached BlazeSports Las Vegas, which was then a year-round program for youth with physical disabilities. It didn’t take long for Cheyenne Leonard to emerge as one of the program’s brightest stars.

After less than a year of training under Shifflett, Cheyenne Leonard took first place in four events at the 2004 National Junior Disability Championships in Mesa, Ariz., including what was then a national record in the discus.

She dreams of one day competing for the U.S. Paralympic Team.

"I introduced her to the sport, and she took off with it," said Shifflett, who is now an adapted physical education teacher in the Clark County School District.

Arbor View coach Tyrel Cooper said Leonard was unable to join the Aggies until more than two weeks into the season because the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association followed guidelines from the national federation that wheelchair athletes are a safety concern.

But after bringing legislation and examples in other states to the NIAA, Leonard was allowed to compete. However, she cannot score points for her team, and will not be part of the postseason despite already posting Sunset Region qualifying marks in the 1,600 and 3,200.

Cooper said the eventual goal is to have other schools with wheelchair athletes participate in high school track to contest for region and state titles.

Cooper was initially unsure how to coach a wheelchair athlete, but did hours of research online and sought advice from Shifflett on a training plan for Leonard, who races in a three-wheel "track chair" designed for speed.

Cooper said Leonard’s teammates have "definitely taken to her," and she’s motivated the entire program.

"She has to push through things that we’ve never been through," Willey said. "We don’t know what it’s like, but she’s doing great."

With two years of high school ahead of her, Leonard hopes her successes will spark a trend of other disabled students in Southern Nevada giving sports a shot.

"One of my goals is to get other kids in wheelchairs to think, ‘I don’t have to sit at home,’ " she said. "I can play sports and be with my friends. I want other kids to see that I’m normal, and so are you. You can come out and do this, too."

Anyone with doubts about the work ethic of the next generation might be put at ease after meeting Leonard, who ranks in the top 10 percent of her class and has a passion for literature. She recently participated in the school’s theater production of "The Crucible."

"She’s an inspiration," Andreana Leonard said of her daughter. "She teaches me every day about being a grown-up and focusing on what you can do. I never lose my perspective when I’m around her. She never stops, and she never complains."

Contact reporter Tristan Aird at taird@review or 702-387-5203.

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