Destined to Race and Determined to Succeed
Elite age group wheelchair marathon racer Sandy Dailey shows us that true strength comes from within.
Confidently cruising through the course at the Chicago marathon, Sandra Dailey was on pace to qualify for the Boston marathon, a goal that she had been working towards for nearly a decade. Suddenly, and without warning at mile 25, her arms seized up. As a competitive wheelchair athlete, this was mission critical.
“It was like someone was holding them,” Dailey recalled. After what felt like an eternity, her arms finally turned over, but it was too late. She missed qualifying for Boston by only a few minutes. This was October of 2012.
The following year, Dailey was watching the Boston marathon on TV. Dailey recanted that when the first bomb went off, there was a person being pushed in adaptive equipment directly across the street from the explosion. She recognized him because she had raced with them before. They had similar paces and would often finish together.
She said, “If I had qualified, I would have been right there when it went off.” She believes her arms stopped working that day for a reason. Lost in thought, she mentioned that they never did that again.
A Life Before this One
Dailey was always active, but not athletic. She liked to paint, lay floors, clean the gutters and putter. She dabbled in racquetball but says, “I couldn’t even run to the mailbox.”
One afternoon, while up on a ladder cleaning the siding of her house, she fell two stories landing directly onto cinder blocks below. She shattered her vertebrae. She couldn’t feel her legs and by the look on the EMT’s face, she knew something catastrophic had happened. At 47 years old, she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Recovery was not easy. Not able to sit up on her own. She was bedriden, imobile and depressed. Thinking back to her days in the hospital, she said, “I felt like a blob. I did not want to live.”
Starting down the path of rehabilitation, she slowly worked towards regaining mobility. She spent time in the pool with aquatics therapy. Her swim coach was also a running coach and introduced her to the track and the concept of wheelchair training.
When she started, she couldn’t make it once around the track without stopping. Her neck would hurt and her arms were sore. But she kept pushing and slowly saw incremental changes. The pain subsided and she was covering more and more distance.
“After a traumatic event you’re like a baby again. You have to relearn all those things you were able to do,” said Dailey. It wasn’t easy, but she was making progress and enjoyed her time on the track.
There was a shift in her mindset, her inner dialogue changed from, “I don’t want to live,” to, “this is fun!”
A Racer is Born
After just one month of time spent at the track, she told her rehab coach that she was going to do a marathon in December. It was July. At the time, she still couldn’t make it a full lap around the track.
She said, “I’m going to do it. I will do it. I can do it. I know I can do it. [My coach] Steve Bunn said you will have to push every day. I said I will.”
Dailey was training six days a week and would log as many miles as she could. She went to different trails and parks to work her arms in different ways. That December, Dailey completed the Dallas marathon and made front page news. Racing had become an instrumental part of her life and she wanted to race a marathon in all 50 states.
As she chipped away at her goal, she learned of the World Majors, six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York.
She suddenly shifted focus because the World Majors could only be raced if the athlete achieved a qualifying time. Dailey thought, “I’m not getting any younger, go focus on that, knock that out and then you can go back to completing the 50 states’ marathons.” She embarked on this journey in 2006.
Success was elusive, however. She raced nearly every weekend during race season chasing her dream. She made it to Chicago in 2012 but struggled to qualify for Boston. It wasn’t always easy to stay the course. “There were times that I would say, ‘I’m too old, it’s not going to happen, but I would see or hear something and it would snap me out of it,” she said.
Finally, at the Idaho Marathon in 2015, her dream was realized. After 10 years of grinding, she qualified for the 2016 Boston Marathon. Success takes patience and Dailey is a shining example of that. She would go on to race Boston again in 2018, Berlin in 2019 and qualified for London in 2020, which was unfortunately canceled due to the CoVid 19 pandemic.
Another Curve Ball
At 56 years old, Dailey had completely reinvented herself. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she was reborn even stronger. However life has a way of continuing to challenge us. That same year, Dailey was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. This meant twelve months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Training took a back seat to her new health priorities. This time, Dailey had a completely different mindset. “I just knew it was going to be ok. I wasn’t scared. I have a purpose, to help other people who are older, who have given up, to inspire them. To find that passion or gift. We all have a gift.” she recalled.
So she forged ahead with treatment with the same discipline and tenacity she applied to marathon training. As of October 2021, she completed her treatment and is cancer free.
While her general health was back in good standing, the treatment and training gap had taken its toll. She was far from her competitive marathoning prime. Reluctantly yet willfully, Dailey got back in the chair and started pushing.
Her celebratory return to the sport came this past May at the Ridgewood Memorial 10k, in Ridgewood NJ. Dailey admitted “I did not train enough for this.” It was slower, challenging and more demanding than she was used to.
But, she was racing again, and that’s all that mattered. The rest will fall into place. “I know me, I know I will find a way to get into it. I will get London under my belt. I’ll figure it out.” Dailey shared.
“I think I am better after the accident.”
When looking back on the day she fell off the ladder, she doesn’t do so with sadness or feelings of loss. Rather, she said, “I think I am better after the accident. I’m a better person. I’m glad it happened. I know that sounds strange, but I really am. Because It changed me totally, for being a better person.”
Dailey is meant to be here. She serves as an inspiration to those who know her. Her commitment, drive, positive attitude and infectious smile is enough of a motivator to turn a bad day into a good one. She is destined to race and affect change wherever she goes. Today she lives a healthier lifestyle; she eats well, her weight is down and she exercises regularly.
She still has two World Majors to go: London and Tokyo. She will likely have to re-qualify for London, but she knows she can do it.
To date, she has completed 38 marathons in 18 states, and qualified for five World Majors (having competed in four).
Dailey’s participation in this sport is made possible by the Challenged Athlete Foundation, ShowMe Aquatics & Fitness, St. Louis Wheelchair Association, Disability Athletic Sports Association and the Kessler Foundation. It is through these foundations that Dailey and others are able to gain access to equipment, secure travel and lodging and participate in races across the world.