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Brian Siemann

A Few Minutes With Brian Siemann

2020 Paralympic Games trainee Brian Siemann chats with Vince Lara of the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois about how he got involved with racing, coach Adam Bleakney and working at Disability Resources & Educational Services at Illinois.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hello. This is Vince Lara at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with Brian Siemann, two-time paralympian who's training again in Illinois for a spot in the 2020 games in Tokyo. Brian, good to talk to you.

So you're a graduate of Notre Dame High from New Jersey, the school that also produced Star Jones, famously, among others. And you started taking part in racing when Coach McLaughlin introduced you to it. Did you think that sports wasn't something you'd ever be able to do to take part in before that?

BRIAN SIEMANN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sports to me was kind of this foreign concept that, you know, I didn't really know of any opportunities that existed nor did I really see any kind of representation of athletes with disabilities competing anywhere. So it's kind of one of those things that when you're-- when you're growing up, you just sort of kind of resigned yourself to the fact if you don't see it, then it's kind of out of sight, out of mind. And you just look for other opportunities or other sort of interests that, you know, are kind of calling to you. And so when I was asked by coach McLaughlin if I wanted to come out for the racing team, it was very much a shock because sports, again, was something that I had never considered myself doing nor did I really consider myself excelling at it at all. So it was definitely a memorable day, to say the least.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, and how quickly did you come to enjoy the sports part of it? I guess-- was it racing that you got into first?

BRIAN SIEMANN: Yeah, yeah. So I got into racing. And so basically, the high school coach McLaughlin had said to me, you know, I've never coach an athlete with a disability before. And I was like, oh, cool.

Well, I've never done any sports before. And so he was like, we'll just kind of figure this out together. And so basically, my high school raised money for my first racing chair, which cost about $5,000, which is a huge-- looking back on it now is a huge-- was a huge sort of gamble that they took and kind of a leap of faith in me just to kind of have me be included on this-- on my high school track team.

And then I just started racing. I did the same workouts that all the able-bodied runners did. And so it was just-- I was just another member of the team, and I just used a racing chair instead of my legs.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, that's great. Now you know, being from the east coast, did you know about Illinois' training facilities, and was coming here about DRES and about the ability for you to continue to train?

BRIAN SIEMANN: Absolutely. But at first, it was not the case. So being from New Jersey and having no exposure to sports, I had created sort of this four year plan for myself where I was going to graduate from high school. And even when I started racing, I had said, like, OK. I'll do this through high school, like, you know.

But it was never anything that I envisioned happening much later on and, like, continuing to do now for, oh my God, nearly 16 years at this point. And so I definitely did not consider that. But as I started to train, I think around my-- like, towards the end of my sophomore and junior year, as you go to these local competitions with other athletes with disabilities, you start to-- Illinois is a term that's frequently mentioned.

And so you start to-- you know, again, I never-- I was living in New Jersey. I was by the shore, by New York City. The idea of coming out to the Midwest and cornfields was like the last thing I ever wanted to do. But I was actually-- I was recruited out here. I came up for a visit I want to say my-- like, the beginning of my senior year, I came out for a track camp that the university program runs for younger kids with disabilities.

I came out, and I did like the whole visit. I saw alma mater. And then I went-- I trained with all of the other U of I paralympians.

And as soon as I came home, I was like, this is where I want to go. Upon just, like, getting around campus, just seeing just the culture around this entire university towards disability is something that is noticeable right away even for someone who has no exposure to it. And so oddly enough, so I submitted my application. I did-- I think it was like the early decision thing or whatever.

And so around that December 1 or whenever that is, I remember I got-- I was, like, frantically checking my email. And I was really frustrated because it was-- we're east coast time. And so I had to wait until 6 o'clock and not 5:00, even though it's, you know, the same thing. but--

VINCE LARA: Right.

BRIAN SIEMANN: My didn't view it that way. And so I was, like, frantically, like, refreshing my email. And I actually accepted my offer of admission before even telling my parents that I got in.

VINCE LARA: Oh wow.

BRIAN SIEMANN: I remember just telling them, like, oh yeah, I got in and I'm going just because I knew that this was where I belonged.

VINCE LARA: Now you predated Coach Bleakney, correct?

BRIAN SIEMANN: No, he had been here for-- I want to say about four years before I started. And so he recruited me.

VINCE LARA: OK. So did you know about him, and was his reputation that wide that even in the East Coast, people knew, oh yeah, you want to go, you know, train with coach?

BRIAN SIEMANN: Oh yeah. So with Adam, it's really funny. So we kind of have this running joke where once I started to learn about the Illinois program my junior year or so, I mean, even before I came out here, you started to see-- like, I learned about the accolades of Adam Bleakney.

It was like I wanted to impress him. And so he would always come to these junior national competitions and everything. And I still remember my conversation with him.

And I always ask him now. I'm like, do you remember, like, where we met and what we talked about? And he's like, yeah, yeah, of course. And he has no idea. And so it's kind of this recurring joke between us that he remembers me when I was a kid. And now he's been stuck with me since 2008.

VINCE LARA: Now you've competed twice in the Paralympics. Do your teammates, at this point, come to you for advice? Because you know, there's a pretty nice gap between you and, let's say, Alexa or some of the younger members. And is that a role that you enjoy?

BRIAN SIEMANN: Yeah, so I think we have a really welcoming sort of environment. I remember when I was the young kid sort of what that was like to be-- you know, we're kind of really lucky here. We're surrounded by phenomenal athletes. And so I remember kind of feeling slightly intimidated but just sort of how welcome I was made to feel by the older teammates that I still am friends with to this day. And so it is something that I do take very seriously when new students come in that I try to be that open sort of person that kind of talks to them and kind of lets them kind of learn from some of the mistakes I made maybe. Or just to have someone to talk it was always kind of-- is something that I do cherish a lot.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hm. Now you got your masters here. Now you're working in DRES and student services. So do you allow yourself to think what's next beyond sport and what your next step would be?

BRIAN SIEMANN: So taking this job as an access specialist at DRES really sort of was kind of what I was thinking as what's my next step after sports. And so I'm very fortunate in the fact that working at DRES gives me the opportunity to still train and train for 2020 and also still work with students, which is what I love doing. And so that culture, really, I don't think I can do this anywhere else. And that's kind of-- this is the perfect sort of position for me. But it really did come out of this desire to sort of-- and it's a desire that's really kind of-- it's a message that's instilled by Adam because he wants us to look beyond sport as well and then to look towards like having healthy, active lifestyles through sports but also then having something set up after the fact because that's something that a lot of athletes struggle with if they don't have some sort of plan in place.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Brian Siemann. This has been "A Few Minutes With."

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