Fesemyer races toward her next challenge: A Ph.D.
- Jenna Fesemyer
- Recreation Sport and Tourism
- University of Illinois
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services
By ETHAN SIMMONS
Jenna Fesemyer’s enduring love of wheelchair racing boils down to two factors. First, like other skill-heavy sports, there always a way to fine-tune her mechanics and improve her craft, she said.
The second reason is simpler: “I love the feeling of going fast,” Fesemyer said.
While the Ohio-born Paralympian keeps up her competitive pace, she’s also racing toward her next professional challenge: obtaining a Ph.D. in recreation, sport and tourism from the University of Illinois.
In many ways, Fesemyer’s approach to her academic pursuit matches her attitude on the track. She’s organized, consistent and utterly committed to both disciplines as avenues for personal growth.
“When I first met her, I worried how she’d manage both being this high-level athlete and doing a Ph.D., which is so time-consuming,” said her advisor, RST Associate Professor Toni Liechty. “But it seems like she takes the same dedication she applies to her training and her sport and she brings that to the Ph.D. She doesn’t do anything halfway.”
Fesemyer graduated from Illinois’ kinesiology program in 2019 and stayed to earn her master’s degree in education policy, organization and leadership. Initially, she wanted to be a physical therapist, but now has her sights set on becoming a faculty member at a university.
Now she’s returned to her “intellectual home” in the College of Applied Health Sciences, entering her second year of the RST Ph.D. program. Fesemyer chose RST to focus her research on the psychosocial benefits of sport interventions for youth with physical disabilities and building more inclusive recreation communities.
“Our faculty is really strong—I've enjoyed every single class that I've taken so far,” Fesemyer said. “When you have faculty that believes in the power of being in the classroom and passing on their legacy of their knowledge to their students, it makes a big difference.
“I’m excited to have my own classroom one day.”
Track star without a track
Tracing back, Fesemyer’s future in athletics seemed a far cry from the opportunities she had in hometown Ravenna, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland.
Due to a rare congenital condition known as proximal femoral focal deficiency, she was born without a hip socket. Her high school had an old cinder track, unsuitable for wheelchair sport.
“It’s interesting how I ended up being a track athlete not having access to a track,” she said.
So, Fesemyer and her family forged a path of her own; growing up with her two triplet siblings, competed in basketball, volleyball and golf with the use of a prosthetic leg and even threw discus and seated shotput for school track teams.
Fesemyer attributes a lot of her competitive nature to growing up as a triplet. But sibling rivalry never stood in the way of their bonds: The trio decided to stay in the same classrooms whenever possible.
“We were always competitive, but we always acknowledged we were teammates and advocates for each other,” Fesemyer said. “Watching them take on this role of constant allies for me as a sibling with a disability, we really have grown a lot together through those different facets. I attribute a lot of who I am to those experiences.”
In 2013, Ohio’s high school athletics association added wheelchair events to the state track meet. With some persuasion from her parents, Fesemyer began making the half-hour trip east to Newton Falls High School to practice wheelchair racing, and “quickly fell in love” with it.
As her skills grew and college drew nearer, she began investigating schools that would help to take her talent to the next level.
She reached out to University of Illinois wheelchair track coach Adam Bleakney and scheduled a visit in fall 2014. Immediately, the fit felt right—the proximity, the academic programs and the history of the school’s accessibility and wheelchair athletics.
Fesemyer’s application to Illinois was the only one she submitted.
“I put all my eggs in one basket. I'm very happy it worked out,” she said.
Early Illinois track practices were a wake-up call, Fesemyer said. She was back at the “bottom of the totem pole” athletically, and training became an all-day endeavor, maintained by constant hydration, good sleep and good fuel.
What helped her adjustment period was the understated style of Bleakney. His reserved nature and methodical approach to practice and competition appeals to Fesemyer and many of his student-athletes.
Fesemyer’s “sunny disposition” is near-constant, Bleakney said, to the point where her peers draw on her positivity to keep spirits high in tough practices.
“(Jenna’s) always had an attitude of comprehensively applying her work ethic, self-discipline and drive to all areas of her life—academics, athletics and work,” Bleakney said. “She shares my philosophy as a coach: We’re training versatile student-athletes who are successful not only in athletics and academics, but in skills that will make them more employable.”
That approach has carried Fesemyer’s improvement in the sport, culminating in an appearance the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympics, where she placed seventh in the women’s 5,000-meter T54 race and shattered her personal best time.
Three marathons remain for Fesemyer this year: Berlin on Sept. 24, Chicago on Oct. 8, and the New York City race on Nov. 5, which doubles as a Paralympic trial for wheelchair racers to punch their ticket to the 2024 Paris Games.
“We've had a really good block of training over these past couple of weeks and so I'm feeling really good—getting stronger, but also growing in that confidence piece as well,” Fesemyer said.
Fesemyer’s athletic and academic journeys crossed for in a moment this January when she hosted a wheelchair track clinic in Columbus, Ohio, for middle school and high school athletes.
While helping adolescent wheelchair athletes with their skills, the clinic served a broader purpose: It set the stage for her pilot academic study, where she’ll revisit Columbus for a follow-up next January.
“It really was a full-circle moment for me, starting as an athlete in Ohio in wheelchair racing to be able to go back and serve that same community through this wheelchair track clinic,” Fesemyer said.
So far, her academic endeavors number from collaborating on a paper about inclusivity in recreation centers to working in Department of Kinesiology and Community Health Associate Professor Laura Rice’s lab on a fall prevention project for people with disabilities.
Fesemyer’s experience in kinesiology has made it easier for her to collaborate across the college, her advisor said.
“I think she’s a great representation of AHS as a whole, and why our college goes together,” Liechty said. “Because she understands why lifestyle fitness is important, why it's important for people with disabilities and how organizations or recreation or fitness centers can facilitate that happening in a way that promotes health.
“She’s kind of the epitome of everything we do in this college,” Liechty said.
Not all of Fesemyer’s contributions take place on the track, classroom or the lab. She recently served as a tour guide for the RST program during summer “Illini Days.”
Prospective students were particularly interested in her Paralympic resume—despite her best efforts.
“I don’t know why, but I always try to hide that part of my identity when I give tours because the identity of a student, for me, comes first,” she said. “That’s really important for me to showcase that, because my identity coming to Illinois was always to be a student first and celebrate the opportunity of being an athlete on the side.
“But it’s sports, and students get excited about sports which is great too.”
As year two of her four-year Ph.D. program begins, Fesemyer is continuously grateful to return to full classrooms and in-person experiences with her graduate cohort.
“Having that experience with my peers, coming in at the same time and progressing through the program at the same time has been a remarkable experience,” she said. “I believe in working in community and working with others.”