While most of the attention at the Tokyo Paralympic Games will be on the athletes, one of the faces you may see on the sidelines will be that of ACU alumna Shannon Utley (’00) of North Richland Hills, Texas.
She is assistant team lead/track operations for the U.S. Paralympic Team, and this year will mark her second time to coach at the Paralympic Summer Games. Her first was at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After graduating from ACU with a bachelor’s degree in exercise sport science, she became a high school track and field coach.
In 2015, she found a fulfilling sideline in coaching athletes with disabilities. In addition to the 2016 Games, she has traveled and coached for the Paralympics around the world, including the Parapan American Games in Toronto (2015) and Lima, Peru (2019), and competitions in London, Berlin and Grosseto, Italy.
The Tokyo Games began today and continue through Sept. 5 with about 4,400 athletes participating from 160 countries and territories. In this Q&A, Utley talks about her experience working with Paralympic athletes and how God’s plan for her life led her down some surprising paths.
What has been your career path since you graduated from ACU?
My career took a left turn early as I had always planned on coaching basketball, the sport I grew up playing. God had other plans. After a December graduation, Duncanville (Texas) High School reached out in need of a track coach, and I took a leap knowing very little about the sport. I was surrounded by two amazing coaches and some incredibly talented girls that first year, and I was hooked. I fell in love with the sport and 22 years later I have never left. This will be my 19th year in Mansfield ISD and my 12th year at Summit High School in Mansfield as head of boys and girls cross country and girls track.
What’s your history with the Paralympics?
When I took over at Summit High School in 2010, one of my horizontal jumpers was a talented young kid named Tobi Fawehinmi. He was a sophomore who had experienced some moderate success as a freshman in the long and triple jump. God placed him in my path for a reason, and little did we know that a few years later we would start this incredible journey.
Tobi experienced a brachial plexus injury due to shoulder dystocia at birth. Over his last three years in high school, he became one of the top long and triple jumpers in Texas. His junior year, while at a meet at TCU, one of the long jump officials suggested he should be competing for the U.S. Paralympic Team. Tobi wasn’t interested, but they persisted in contacting me a couple of weeks later and offered to bring him out for a meet in Arizona after our state meet in Texas. I knew he was nervous to go by himself on a plane, to a different state where he knew no one. So I booked my own travel, flew out to Arizona to meet him, and we went to our first Paralympic meet together.
What was your first Paralympic experience like?
Mind blown! It was an incredible experience, and within a few short months Tobi was on his way to London, the youngest member of the team in 2012. I continued coaching Tobi until he moved on to Texas-Arlington on a track and field scholarship, and during that time Cathy Sellers, the former director of Paralympic Track and Field at the USOPC [U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee], asked me to come out to the Spire Institute in Ohio to work with some emerging athletes at a clinic. Turns out it was a bit of a job interview, and it must have gone well. About a year later I made my first international staff as an assistant jumps coach for the Parapan Am Games in Toronto.
What will you do in your role as assistant team lead/track operations for the Tokyo games?
I will still be coaching, working with several of the jumpers and sprinters. In addition, I will be a sort of liaison, communicating between the technical delegates, officials and our team delegation at the track – essentially putting out fires and filing everything from relay cards to protests with the TIC, and making sure athletes arrive at the call room on time and in compliance.
How did you first become involved in working with athletes with disabilities?
Tobi was the first athlete I worked with who had a disability, but I never thought of him that way. It never occurred to me that he couldn’t do anything any other kid could. I just had to think outside the box sometimes to make it happen, but he wasn’t getting out of anything. Once I had the opportunity to begin working with other athletes like Tobi, I realized how much I enjoyed it. These young men and women are amazing. They are the epitome of “no excuses”!
What’s the best part of working with these athletes?
The inspiration they bring each and every day. There is no feeling sorry for yourself around these athletes and I love that.
Why do you do this? What’s your inspiration?
I love it. I love the people I have been fortunate enough to get to know, both athletes and coaches. They have changed my world, they have made me a better coach, and I am forever grateful for a young man named Tobi whom God planted squarely in my path and who is now part of my family.
Any favorite moments from your first Paralympics?
My first Paralympics was in Rio in 2016. Having the opportunity to watch Tobi, a young person I had worked with since he was 15, in person on the largest stage was the top moment. Second would be the Opening Ceremonies, walking out of the tunnel with everyone chanting “USA” – it’s hard to describe. I was blessed to get to work with unbelievably talented coaches. Most of the time I would look around and wonder, how did I get here?
How will this year be different?
COVID changes everything. It will be very different with the current protocols and safety measures in place. One of the most enjoyable parts of international competition is meeting people from other countries and experiencing the country you are visiting. Neither of those will be possible this year, but we are so grateful the athletes are able to go and compete and have this experience after all of their hard work.
What else would you add?
You just never know what God has in store for you. If you had told me 21 years ago when I left Abilene that I would be in this position, I would have laughed at you. I have been blessed to travel the world and work with the most amazing group of men and women.