Paralympian Rheed McCracken is back in action for Summer Down Under Series

SET TO RACE: Rheed McCracken with his Newcastle companion, Greyhounds As Pets (GAP) adoptee Zyla. Picture: Chris Pavlich.
SET TO RACE: Rheed McCracken with his Newcastle companion, Greyhounds As Pets (GAP) adoptee Zyla. Picture: Chris Pavlich.

In what is still a very uncertain time for athletes, Newcastle based athlete Rheed McCracken is eager to make his 12th appearance in the annual Summer Down Under Series.

He is particularly keen to hit the track as, due to COVID restrictions, it will be his first competition since his Tokyo Paralympics campaign.

Australia's biggest wheelchair event, the Summer Down Under Series, features a three night track meet in Canberra from Thursday, January 20 before moving to Sydney for the main event, the Oz Day 10K.

While McCracken is known for his burst of speed over short distances, including being a three time silver medallist in the 100m T34 event at the Paralympic Games (most recently in Toyko in 2021), he always looked forward to the 10km road race.

"The 10K is amazing. Some of the best athletes in the world compete in this race," he said.

Its former winners include McCracken's mentor Kurt Fearnley, wheelchair racing legend Louise Sauvage and Tokyo's marathon golden girl Madison de Rozario. Each year is a lineup of international powerhouses of the sport.

McCracken's preparations have been taking place at the Fearnley Dawes Athletic Centre, with five time Australian Paralympic coach Andrew Dawes.

McCracken's journey through a tumultuous year of international competition, Paralympic success and periods of isolation have all been helped along by the addition to McCracken's household of adopted greyhound Zyla in 2021.

"Apart from being crazy, she's amazing. She's the best thing we've done, she's a darling little girl," McCracken said.

"She's so placid. As soon as you come home, she's so excited to see you, she wants to be around you. Especially for someone like me, who's in a wheelchair, she walks beside me, she doesn't pull on the lead or anything. She's amazing."

Zyla adapted quickly to life with athletes, and enjoys the structure of living with people who have a set training (and walking) schedule.

It gives you a whole new perspective on life. To me, sport is everything, but some days, you've had a really bad session at training and it hasn't been your day, you come home and can forget about it because she's there and she doesn't know you've had a bad day, she's just happy to see you.

McCracken's partner, Paralympian swimmer Ashleigh McConnell, travels to and from Melbourne with training commitments, so the little fawn, who will soon be seven-years-old, has been a particularly helpful companion during COVID-19 restrictions.

"I'm away from my family, my family all live in Queensland, so it's been really hard, especially through COVID, because we couldn't go anywhere, the border's shut, so having Zyla there was really nice as a companion," he said.

"So for a long time, it was just me and Zyla at home."

Zyla came from the Greyhounds As Pets (GAP) program, which works to rehome greyhounds from the racing industry. Zyla was a perfect fit, adopted in 2021, with unexpected benefits.

"It gives you a whole new perspective on life. To me, sport is everything, but some days, you've had a really bad session at training and it hasn't been your day, you come home and can forget about it because she's there and she doesn't know you've had a bad day, she's just happy to see you," McCracken said.

"And all of a sudden your mind's changed. It's shown me a bit more perspective - you don't have to dwell on those things.

"As athletes, you put a lot of pressure on yourselves, so having her there has really helped."

With good base fitness, boosted by a new strength and conditioning program with NSW Institute of Sport, and the adrenaline sure to be pumping, McCracken will be working hard for a top five finish in the 10K open men's event on January 26. As a junior, he took out several Oz Day 10K titles.

"It's such an exciting day, there's a lot of people around, it's a great course and you get a chance to race against some really amazing athletes," he said.

Looking forward to the next few months, McCracken will be working towards competing in the NSW State Championships, the Athletics Australia Nationals.

International travel beckons, and the wheelchair racer fervently hopes he will be able to follow through with plans to compete in the Swiss Nationals in Switzerland in May.

In 2023, the World Championships have been scheduled, which will be part of McCracken's preparations for the Paris Paralympics in 2024.

"I want to head into the next couple of years as strong and as fit as possible. I would love to go one step higher on the podium," he said.

This story McCracken back in action for Summer Down Under Series first appeared on Newcastle Herald.