“I know I don’t have much experience and I’m not at the level of many of the athletes at the T54 are. I will just try to do my best.”
If you’d asked Annika Zeyen 10 months ago if she believed she’d be taking to the track at World Para Athletics Championships in London this July, the answer would have been simple.
“I would not have imagined it would be possible.”
But this month, the 32-year-old German will line up against the likes of multi-Paralympic champion Tatyana McFadden in the T54 class in London, after successfully trading basketball for athletics.
Zeyen is best known as a wheelchair basketballer, and in an illustrious career won six European Championships, three World Championship medals and three Paralympic medals, including gold at London 2012.
After securing silver at Rio 2016, she decided to retire from the sport, but it wasn’t long before she was looking for a new challenge. Her training partner – Paralympian Alhassane Balde – invited her along to an athletics session about a month after the Games, and Zeyen was soon hooked.
“I wanted to train more because I knew I could do better, but I just needed to know the technique,” she remembers. “I was feeling that I could go much faster because I had the muscles and the power to do so.”
Back in October, Zeyen could only race at 20km-per-hour on the track, just half the speed of other high-performance racers in her T54 class. She was pushing on a borrowed racing chair that did not fit, and had to work on adjusting her technique, which Zeyen admits is “totally different” to that needed in wheelchair basketball.
In a basketball chair, athletes push the rim of the wheel. In a racing chair, instead of grabbing the rims, they strike it and make bigger, rounder movements.
“What’s even different is the amount of technology,” Zeyen said. “It’s so important in wheelchair racing to have the right wheels and keep your wheels functioning. The push rims, you need the right gloves. It’s so much about equipment.”
Grand Prix debut
Despite her early difficulties, Zeyen’s confidence grew, and when the World Para Athletics Grand Prix series kicked off in March, the German entered.
She raced every distance at the opening event in Dubai, UAE, before going on to compete at six further meetings.
Then at the German national championships in May she won every race she took part in, breaking the national records for 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m along the way. It was the incentive she needed to target a place at London 2017.
“What is really good about wheelchair racing, you can really see your improvement,” Zeyen said. “It’s basically you and you’re going for the fastest time and you can see the progress... So that’s actually motivating for me, that I can actually see in every training session if I’m getting better or not.”
After a tough qualification campaign, Zeyen only found out in June that she had secured a place at the World Championships, which take place in London from 14-23 July. With such fierce competition in the T54 class, she is realistic about her expectations.
“Going into London, I’m very thankful that I get the opportunity to compete there,” Zeyen said. “I know I don’t have much experience and I’m not at the level of many of the athletes at the T54 are. I will just try to do my best.”