EDISON PARK — Six years ago, Kelsey LeFevour only looked at a wheelchair as a mode of transportation.
Now it's become a conduit to glory.
The Resurrection High School graduate and University of Illinois master's student recently earned a spot on Team USA's Paralympics squad, which will compete in the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships from July 19-28 in Lyon, France.
It's been a shocking rise to prominence for LeFevour, who will vie for gold in the 100 meters.
LeFevour, an Edison Park native, turned 24 on Monday and had never participated in competitive wheelchair racing until she enrolled at the university in 2007.
"Kelsey's an anomaly because it usually takes much longer for an athlete to make their first national team," fellow Team USA-er and U of I graduate Brian Siemann said. "But it was something she worked for, and there was a lot of time and effort put into it.
"People wouldn't be surprised if they knew who Kelsey was."
"4-foot-3 on a good day"
LeFevour was born with spinal deformities scoliosis, kyphosis and diastematomyelia.
When she started high school, she weighed 60 pounds and was 4 feet 2 inches tall.
"4-foot-3 on a good day," LeFevour recently said from her family's Edison Park home.
Sports, other than an occasional trip to Colorado to ski, were not part of the equation for LeFevour growing up.
Ironically, she did not want to attend the U of I. Her first choice was the University of Denver, where LeFevour said she would continue "to ski and live the glamorous life."
Her mother, Karen Allabastro, a nurse at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, convinced her to go to the U of I, which is well known for supporting athletes with disabilities.
"She was very mad at me and said she would give it a semester and then come back," said Allabastro, a Lincoln Park native and DePaul University graduate. "But that semester turned into six years."
LeFevour began her athletic career by joining the university's wheelchair basketball team, whose coaches she had met before enrolling. She quickly followed by signing up for the Illinois Wheelchair Athletics track club, which holds 12 practices per week. That includes 65 miles of training runs, plus strength training, physical therapy and a diabolical exercise called the "Stairway to Hell," where athletes' legs are harnessed, and they're hung upside down as they use their arms to "climb" up a staircase.
"We've had a long history of success in wheelchair track," Illinois coach Adam Bleakney said. "And we attract and pull in individuals who have potential to be great athletes, with not just physical attributes, but the drive and the will, and I think Kelsey fits into that category."
Like most competitors, Bleakney said it took LeFevour about three years to adapt to pushing a racing wheelchair, which requires different stroke mechanics than a regular one. Bleakney said LeFevour's long arms naturally suited her to racing, and her discipline and work ethic only helped put her on the fast track.
LeFevour's friend since high school, Stacey Caron of Roscoe Village, has seen that determination during her frequent visits to Champaign-Urbana.
Caron said LeFevour's mindset toward being in a wheelchair has changed dramatically since she left for college. LeFevour, who has limited mobility, frequently would exit her chair and walk short distances unassisted during high school. At the U of I, she almost never did.
"That was a big change for her," said Caron, also a nurse at RIC.
That may be because wheelchair racing has taken LeFevour so far. She's participated in events in Switzerland and Canada, plus Florida, Texas, Indiana, California, Missouri and Georgia. In last year's Chicago Marathon, LeFevour finished third.
LeFevour, who has an bachelor's degree in media studies and is halfway through a two-year program to earn a master's in sports management, jokingly said she "doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up, but I want to stay in wheelchair sports."
LeFevour's goal in France is to make the championship race, which would rank her among the world's top eight sprinters.
And LeFevour has her mind firmly set on 2016, when the next Paralympics will take place in Rio de Janeiro.
"This was something I didn't even realize I was looking for," she said. "Now I can't imagine not racing."