Annika Zeyen is quickly becoming one of the best in the world -- at her second sport
When Annika Zeyen punched the air after helping the German wheelchair basketball team claim the silver medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, it was like an exclamation point on her career. She had accomplished it all -- including a Paralympic gold medal in 2012 -- and was ready to retire from competition.
Or so she thought.
Three weeks later, Zeyen sat in a racing wheelchair for the first time, and six months after her final basketball game, she made her pro wheelchair racing debut. Appearances in the world championships and her first marathon followed. On Sunday, her soaring second sports career will continue at the New York City Marathon.
"I've played basketball for so long, you go to the same places and you are well known," Zeyen, 32, said. "But in racing, I have to start from scratch and fight my way up. I enjoy the challenge of starting something new and proving my worth."
Zeyen can't remember a time when she wasn't involved in a sport. As a child, she was a huge fan of horseback riding and went to the stables in her hometown of Bonn, Germany, at least twice a week. It was during one of those rides in 1999 that things went horribly wrong. She was thrown off her horse and woke up in a hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. She was 14 years old.
While still confined to a rehabilitation center, trying to come to terms with her new reality, Zeyen first heard about wheelchair basketball. She immediately wanted to try it out, and once she went home, her parents signed her up with the ASV Bonn wheelchair basketball club.
"I was relieved -- I could play and feel happy again," Zeyen said. "I gave everything I had to get better at the sport."
She quickly became one of her country's best players and joined the national team in 2002, going on to win three Paralympic medals, three world championship medals and five European championships during her illustrious basketball career.
In 2009, Zeyen received a full scholarship to play wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama, where she began pursuing her master's degree in advertising and graphic design.
I always tell people, had she taken up the sport a long time ago, she'd definitely be the Tatyana McFadden now.Wheelchair racer Alhassane Baldé
"She was one of the best athletes that ever represented University of Alabama," said Brent Hardin, the school's adapted athletics coach.
Always a selfless leader, Zeyen developed into an offensive force at Alabama, where she was a two-time All-American.
"We probably shot over a million shots together, and by the end she became one of the best shooters of the game," Hardin said.
After returning to Germany, she put everything she learned at Alabama, on the court and in the classroom, to good use. She started working as a design project coordinator with the International Paralympic Committee, which is based in Bonn, while continuing to be a leader on the basketball team.
Her greatest athletic achievement came at the 2012 Paralympics, when she led Germany to the gold medal.
"When I think of London 2012, I think of the atmosphere, the energy and the close-fought games. I will never forget that tournament," she said.
In the quarterfinals, Germany had to get past host Great Britain in hostile territory. Zeyen scored 25 points in that 55-44 victory, saying it was "incredible to play in front of so many fans who were against you -- and beating them."
Chris Giles, the German team's volunteer liaison in London (and who'd later become Zeyen's boyfriend), called Zeyen a "super human" for her achievements.
"She was so poised and comfortable," Giles said. "She was a born leader."
Four years later, Zeyen had earned another Paralympic medal with her team -- and thought she was retiring from sports. In the two weeks after the Rio Paralympics, which were held in September 2016, Zeyen stayed active by going snow skiing and water skiing and playing badminton. But she already missed the adrenaline rush and competitiveness of wheelchair basketball.
"You should try racing at least once," Zeyen had been told by several athletes over the years, and the time seemed right to take their advice. She knew Bonn was home to one of Germany's best wheelchair racers, Alhassane Baldé, so she contacted him via Facebook.
A week later she was on a local track, ready to race, using wheels and gloves Baldé had loaned her. She instantly loved the feeling racing gave her. It rekindled the competitive fire she'd had on the basketball court all those years.
"She said she wanted to race for fun," Giles said, "but knowing Annika, I knew that when it's sport-related and it's competitive, it won't remain fun for very long."
Soon she was training with Baldé five days a week.
Zeyen was powerful -- she brought with her the muscles and precision from her old sport -- but she lacked the technique needed to get the most out of a racing chair, which is much different from what she had used in basketball. But the more she worked on it, the faster she got, increasing her speed from 20 kph (12.4 mph) to 40 kph (24.8 mph) in a matter of months.
She bought her own racing wheels in February of this year, and in March she made her pro wheelchair racing debut at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix event in Dubai. There was no stopping her. In June, she competed in the Switzerland Grand Prix event.
German national team coach Alois Gmeiner was driving to that competition -- and was running late -- when he got a call from Zeyen. "'I broke the national record in 800 meters,' she said simply, like it is the most common thing in the world," Gmeiner said.
She ended up breaking four German records in Switzerland while qualifying for the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in London. Then in July, a mere nine months after first sitting on racing wheels, Zeyen made it to two finals (200 meters and 5,000 meters) in her first world championships.
"She went back to the same venue where she won the gold Paralympic medal [in basketball], and this time she was competing in a different sport," Giles said. "It was unbelievable to watch."
Zeyen has competed in a variety of races but felt more drawn to longer distances, with the elements of endurance and power reminding her of basketball. In September she entered the Berlin Marathon. She did more than just finish her first 26.2-mile race; she placed third in 1 hour, 51 minutes, 2 seconds.
It rained throughout, her gloves slipped and she could feel herself sliding at multiple points during the marathon -- but she was incredibly happy with the performance.
The competition will be tougher in New York, where the field includes five-time champion and seven-time Paralympic gold medalist Tatyana McFadden. Zeyen won't back down, though, and is gunning for a spot in the top 10.
"New York Marathon has been a dream," Zeyen said. "Even if I hadn't taken up racing seriously, I'd have competed at some point, and I am excited."
After New York, she wants to focus on qualifying for the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin and racing in front of the home crowd.
"I always tell people," Baldé said, "had she taken up the sport a long time ago, she'd definitely be the Tatyana McFadden now."
Zeyen's accomplishments don't surprise Hardin, her college coach, after all he saw her do at Alabama, but even he is in awe of how fast she's risen in wheelchair racing.
"To be the best in one sport and to be able to switch sports and then become the best in that sport in a year -- that, I think, is pretty amazing," he said.