Back in early February, we at Hepstrack learned of Harvard’s freshman sprinter Nicky Maxwell , his collegiate debut at the Crimson Elite meet, and how his race made NCAA history. We reached out to him and his training coach, Marc Mangiacotti, to learn more about Maxwell’s story and the significance of his race.
Nicky Maxwell doesn’t see himself as the next big name in athletics. To himself, he’s just another normal student-athlete. The London teenager planned to train and compete with the Harvard University track & field team as a sprinter during their 2015-16 while getting a “well-rounded education” from an American university.
But Maxwell is not a normal student-athlete. Technically, he’s a para-athlete. He had his leg amputated when he was 15 months old due to fibular hemimelia – a condition where the fibula or calf bone is shortened or never developed at birth. Maxwell had been an active athlete throughout his youth, ultimately starting in athletics in 2010 as a British para-athlete in the T44 category (a Paralympic category for any athlete with either a single amputation from below the knee or walk with a moderately reduced function in one or both legs). He competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 4x100m relays with his home athletic club, winning some national age group titles in the process. Maxwell wants to continue to grow as a sprinter and become the “best sprinter I could be”. And so, he looked to America to continue his athletic career as the British collegiate system does not put the same focus on athletic development as America’s NCAA system does.
Harvard’s sprint and hurdles coach Marc Mangiacotti (known to his athletes as Coach Mang) first met Maxwell during a campus visit in August 2014. The coach had never worked with a para-athlete before. However, Coach Mang was open to having a para-athlete on the sprinting roster. By the end of the campus visit, Coach Mang could tell that Maxwell had the passion to pursue his athletic career, as well as having a “championship mentality” as Coach Mang likes to call it.
“Though he may not be training for the NCAA championships, which would be great, the reality is he’s training for the Para-championships,” Coach Mang shared with the Harvard student newspaper, The Crimson, last December. “So therefore he brings a championship mentality and a passion for the sport, and we welcome people like that in Harvard Athletics—and Harvard track and field.”
“I wasn’t expected to be recruited so it was very well that I got the approval from the Harvard track and field program,” Maxwell shared about that 2014 meeting. “I was lucky enough to get in and contacted Coach Mang. He said ‘Well, we’ll file for eligibility and I’ll let you know what happens.’ I assumed this was a fairly minor and regular process that would happen for anyone coming from a different country or for all collegiate athletes.”
But little did he know that it wouldn’t be. Prior to 2016, no one had ever competed in NCAA track & field as a para-athlete. Para-athletes have trained with other NCAA Division I teams but never competed with these teams. One example was Jerome Singleton, who trained with the track team while he studied industrial engineering at the University of Michigan in the early 2000s. Singleton later won global and Paralympic titles for Team USA in the 100m and 4×100 T44 category from 2008 to 2013.
So what would it take for Maxwell to race as a NCAA student-athlete? Coach Mang had to call the Harvard Athletic Compliance office about the situation, and they in turn told him to reach out to the NCAA Track & Field Liaison, Bob Podkaminer. At first, it was just a few forms needed to be filled out, which wasn’t a problem or a big concern to Coach Mang. But later on, people from NCAA started calling him and requested Maxwell’s para-athletic race results, racing videos, and photos of the prosthetic in question. That’s when Coach Mang and Maxwell realized that this was going to be a bigger issue than they previously thought.
There isn’t a rule in the NCAA Track and Field Rules Book that prohibits prosthetics, per say, but there are rules that prohibit the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete who is not using such a device. The NCAA needed to decide if the prosthetic could be such an advantageous device.
Amputee athletes competing with able-bodied athletes have divided the athletics community in recent years, especially on the international level. There have been studies that provided evidence for and against the use of prosthetics in able-bodied competitions on whether or not they provide any kind of unfair advantage, such as delay in fatigue during longer sprints or enhancing natural body mechanics. There have been petitions made to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from para-athletes to compete in able-bodied competitions if the para-athletes can perform up to the able-bodied standards required for these competitions. The most famous case is Oscar Pistorius, also known as the “Blade Runner”, who was able to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in the open 400m and on South Africa’s 4×400 relay. He also won a medal as a part of the South African 4×400 relay during the 2011 IAAF World Championships. Like Maxwell, he is also a T44 category para-athlete. Currently, Germany’s Merkus Rehm, a T44 long jumper, is petitioning to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Rehm’s personal record of 8.40m would have won the 2015 IAAF World Championships in the long jump.
Maxwell’s case was presented to the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Track and Field/Cross Country Rules Committee during the June 2015 NCAA Track & Field Annual Meeting. The Committee evaluated the material that Maxwell and Coach Mang provided, as well as listened to a presentation by Alena Grabowski, an assistant professor of integrative physiology from the University of Colorado, Boulder who has conducted extensive research involving amputee athletes who compete in track and field. Grabowski’s research showed that amputee athletes are at a disadvantage. The amputee athletes do not push on the ground with as much force as able-body athletes, resulting in a disadvantage when it comes to being able to run faster. Or as Maxwell sees it, the prosthetic limb does not generate any additional force – it only mimics the spring and force that the athlete is able to apply to it while they push off the ground.
Fortunately for Maxwell and Harvard, the committee gave their approval, as they came to believe that for Maxwell, using the prosthetic would not provide any kind of advantage during competition. He would need to be reevaluated by the NCAA for each year, in case there was a change in which prosthetic Maxwell uses or how much Maxwell improves while using that technology.
“We needed some science as a basis to make a decision,” said John McNichols, chair of the committee and men’s cross country and track and field coach at Indiana State University shared in an article about the approval. “[Grabowski] alleviated any concerns about competitive advantage or safety concerns.”
Once Maxwell was cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse in December 2015, he was fully eligible to compete. There was little media fanfare about the situation, but it surprised Maxwell on getting any kind of recognition all the same. The Harvard student newspaper, The Crimson, did a feature piece and video on him that got circulated around to a few track and field-oriented news outlets. He even received a piece of fan mail from a father in Los Angeles who has a 10-year old son with a similar condition and competes in athletics, asking him about competing as a para-athlete. “Yeah, I’m sure my ego definitely needs a boost,” he laughed when asked about inspiring young fans.
While he was initially planning to race in January, Maxwell finally ran his first competition at the Crimson Elite meet on February 5th as he recovered from some minor training injuries from earlier in the season. While he wasn’t 100% happy with how his race went (in his opinion, “I didn’t really have a drive phase at all. I kind of spun my wheels for a bit and then began to run. It’s just an execution issue”), he was happy and grateful to just run. “It was more than anything else, a relief to get it underway… it was a really a good feeling. I feel I can improve my time by a significant amount but I’m glad to have run, regardless of how I feel about my race.” He will likely not get another chance to compete during this indoor season as the competition has shifted its focus to the championship portion, but he is looking forward to the upcoming outdoor season.
Don’t call Maxwell the next big thing in para-athletics, he cannot stress that enough when we spoke on the phone. While he has ambitions to ultimately make the Paralympic qualification standards of 11.75 for the 100m and 23.30 for the 200m and represent Team Great Britain at some point, he knows that it is not where he is right now. Even if he does make those qualification times, he would need to be selected by British Athletics as they tend to only select athletes for world championship competition who have a great chance of making the event’s final or medaling. His current personal bests are 14.00 for the 100m and 27.90 for the 200m which he set last year coming off of a hamstring injury. His goal times for this year are 12.50 in the 100m and sub 26 seconds for the 200m – both times that would approach the Paralympic B Standards in their respective events (12.50 and 25.80), but might not still be enough to head to Rio this summer. But you know what – he’s fine with that.
The one thing he would like to stress though is how grateful he is for the opportunity to compete collegiately. “I’m so grateful for people like Coach Mang. I was really completely naive about there would be any process required. If I wanted to run I’d be able to, that I would be accepted by a program that would have me participate. He made no big deal out of it whatsoever. Never asked for thanks, which is absolutely due.”
All Maxwell wanted was the opportunity to develop into the best sprinter that he can be, and now, he has the opportunity to do that.
Maxwell – front row, right; Coach Mang – top row, right
Header photo by the Crimson’s Isabella Beroutsos and Eliza Pugh
Other photos provided by Nicky Maxwell