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Hunter Woodhall among three Utah medalists at Tokyo Paralympics

Marybai Huking takes silver in goalball; Ali Ibanez helps USA wheelchair basketball take bronze.

Hunter Woodhall, who grew up in Syracuse, Utah, celebrates after finishing third during the men's T62 400-meter final at Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Hunter Woodhall dashed to third place and the bronze medal in the men’s T62 400-meter race at the Tokyo Paralympics on Friday morning. Then he sprinted home.

Woodhall collected his third Paralympic medal and second at the 400-meter distance on the wet track and in 97% humidity at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Unlike when he won bronze at that distance and silver in the 200 at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, though, his family and friends weren’t there to witness it.

Their absence weighed on him throughout the Games, the Syracuse native said.

“It’s been a really big mental battle to kind of do it solo,” Woodhall, whose return flight to the United States was scheduled to take off less than 24 hours after his final race of these Games, said in a post-race interview. “It kind of comes to fruition the saying: ‘It might just be me running, but there is a big team behind me.’ And when you don’t have that team present, you realize how important it is to have them around.

“I’m excited to go home and see them. I’m really excited to head back.”

Packed in his carry-on will be one of three medals won by a Utah athlete at these Paralympics. Marybai Huking of Salt Lake City will bring back a silver in goalball and Ali Ibanez won a bronze with the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team. Utahns David Blair, Dani Aravich and Shelby Jensen also competed in Tokyo, which will host the closing ceremony Sunday morning.

Woodhall will first touch down in Arkansas, where he now lives. Then, he said, he plans to make a trip to Utah to see his parents and extended family. After that, he doesn’t know what the future holds.

He has plenty of options.

(Eugene Hoshiko | AP) United States' Hunter Woodhall, third from right, competes during the men's 100m T64 heats in the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.

Woodhall has built a social media empire that, prior to the Paralympics, he said he plans to continue to tend to alongside his girlfriend, Olympic long jumper Tara Davis. The 22-year-old still owns a share of a startup he founded with some fellow University of Arkansas students that sells oversized sweatshirts and that he said is valued at $15 million. Plus, he reportedly possesses a real estate portfolio that includes about five rental properties in Arkansas.

He also has the opportunity to return to collegiate competition.

Woodhall, who had both legs amputated when he was an infant, became the first double amputee to receive an NCAA Division I scholarship when he joined the Razorbacks in 2017. He left the team last February, however, because the NCAA’s rules at the time barred athletes from profiting off their name, image or likeness. The NCAA changed that rule in July and, even though he graduated this summer, Woodhall could still return to cash in his final year of eligibility.

“I’m definitely going to be back in Utah. I miss my family, so I’m going to go see them,” Woodhall said Friday. “As far as what the future holds, I’m really not sure. The plan right now is to go home and take a mental and physical break for a little while and then kind of plan from there.”

Athletes at these Olympic and Paralympic Games had to train an extra year, with no guarantee the Games would be held, after the original events scheduled for 2020 were postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. Woodhall, in an April interview, said the delay allowed him to step back and appreciate the opportunity to compete. On Friday, however, he admitted the extension had taken a toll on him.

He finished Friday’s race in 48.61 seconds, which was almost two seconds slower than he ran in Brazil. Reigning world champion Johannes Floors of Germany won the gold in a Paralympic record of 45.85 and Olivier Hendriks (47.95) of The Netherlands took silver.

“I ran a little faster earlier in the season,” Woodhall said. “But with 2020 being canceled and having to train until now, it’s been an extremely long season, an extremely challenging season. Especially with NCAA [meets] mixed in there, I feel like I’ve had four or five of these leading up to the games.”

He has one more dash to go — back to Arkansas —then he can cruise for a while in the slow lane.

“Really, for me,” he said, “it’s just about getting home and recovering.”

Joe Kusumoto | Contributed photo Marybai Huking of Salt Lake City makes a block for Team USA during the gold-medal women's goalball game at the Tokyo Paralympics on Sept. 3, 2021. The USA lost to Turkey, 9-2, to take the silver medal.

Marybai Huking, goalball

Huking and the USA women’s goalball team improved on their bronze-medal performance in Rio by taking silver in Tokyo.

Team USA lost to Turkey, the defending gold medalist, 9-2 in Friday’s final despite having handed the Turks their only loss in pool play. One difference in the two matches was that the USA was missing its leading scorer, Amanda Dennis of Georgia. Dennis incurred an injury in warmups and coach Jake Czechowski said he opted not to play her.

“Clearly, everybody saw that we did not have our full squad available,” Czechowski said. “That was my decision. We had a pre-game injury and I’m always going to err on the side of caution for my athletes. We want to play and compete and beat everybody in the world, but never at the expense of health.”

During elimination play, Huking helped hold Russia scoreless in the second half of their quarterfinal by making 22 blocks. She also made 16 blocks in nine minutes of play in a tenuous 5-4 semifinal win over Brazil that went to two overtimes and a six-throw shootout.

In total, she played 72 minutes, logging 101 blocks and 21 throws.

Huking, 24, was born with albinism — a condition in which the body does not produce any pigment in a person’s hair, skin or eyes — and is legally blind.

Ali Ibanez, women’s wheelchair basketball

Ibanez didn’t expect to be the star on the court. By playing well when called upon — including 8:32 in the final — though, she helped Team USA bring home the bronze medal with a 64-51 win over Germany on Saturday in Ariake Arena.

Ibanez has arthrogryposis, a congenital disability that causes a person’s joints to lock up, and is classified among the least mobile athletes on her team. Still she recorded four points and eight rebounds while appearing in four games.

One of the youngest athletes on the team at age 21, Ibanez said she hopes to stay with the team through at least Paris 2024.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dozens of medals won by Shelby Jensen of Salt Lake City grace the wall as she prepares to compete in wheelchair fencing — saber, epee and foil — in the Paralympics in Tokyo. She is ranked No. 1 in saber in the USA and No. 2 in the other two. She can stand but uses a wheelchair after having a stroke when she was 7.

Shelby Jensen, wheelchair fencing

Jensen, the youngest women’s fencing competitor at the Paralympics at age 20, helped form the USA’s first Paralympic wheelchair fencing team since 2004. Joining with Ellen Geddes and Terry Hayes, the Americans finished seventh in epee and eighth in foil.

Team USA had a particularly tough pool in epee, where they lost to China, Ukraine and Hungary. China won the gold medal over Ukraine, which in turn narrowly defeated Hungary in pool play.

“We had three of the hardest teams in the world, but it was definitely exciting and it was challenging and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Jensen said. “We got to learn new things about our opponents and those things I will take and insert them into my fencing practice.”

Jensen, of Millcreek, also competed individually in epee and sabre, taking 12th and 15th, respectively.

David Blair, T64 discus

The defending gold medalist placed fourth in Tokyo after recording distances on just two of his six throws in the F44/64 final Thursday.

Blair, who lives in Eagle Mountain, won gold in Rio de Janeiro with a throw of 64.11 meters just two years after taking a 16-year hiatus from the sport. In Tokyo, he never found his rhythm. The 45-year-old threw the disc 53.18 meters on his second attempt and 48.0 on his fourth. He scratched on his other attempts.

Teammate and friendly rival Jeremy Campbell, whose world record Blair broke with his gold-medal throw in Rio, claimed the gold with his first throw, which went 60.22 meters. Ivan Katanusic (55.06) of Croatia took silver and Dan Greave of Great Britain edged Blair for bronze with a throw of 53.56.

Blair was born with a club foot. He won the Utah high school state championship in discus in 1993.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dani Aravich is training to join Team USA for Paralympic Track and Field for the summer games in Tokyo in 2020. Aravich works out at the Utah Olympic Oval, Jan. 28, 2020.

Dani Aravich, T47 400 meters

Aravich decided to attempt to race the 400 — a distance at which she had never competed — a few years ago when she started to feel her work-life balance get out of whack. Formerly employed by the Utah Jazz, she moved to Park City to train full-time and qualified to compete in Tokyo.

On Aug. 27, she ran a preliminary heat in Olympic Stadium, finishing fifth in 1:03.76.

Aravich’s Olympic experience isn’t over, though. She will try to make the swift transition to qualify for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Nordic skiing next February.

“What I once thought was such a negative thing, like, ‘Why me? Why me? Why me?’ Now it’s very much a positive thing,” Aravich, a congenital amputee, told The Tribune in 2020. “It’s like, look at all the opportunities I have.”

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