Erik Hightower has had a talent for racing at a very young age. The Phoenix-native was born with Spina Bifida, which is caused by an incomplete development of spinal cord and brain, and was in and out of a wheelchair by age eight. At the encouragement of his parents, he tried his hand at racing, even though he was reluctant at first.
“Honestly, I absolutely hated it,” Hightower said. “It was challenging, and anything that’s challenging to a young child they just automatically want to give up on it”.
Good thing his reluctance wore off. Hightower now holds the American record for the fastest 100 meter T-54 wheelchair sprint. T-54 refers to the classification for disabled athletes. There is a tier system that places athletes with competition depending on their disability to ensure the playing field is equal among it’s participants.
After his record-breaking race, Hightower’s day took a turn for the worse. The race was in Indianapolis, and Hightower had family he was visiting in Ohio after the race. In the process of transporting his racing chair to a relative’s house, the chair was stolen out of the back of his cousin’s truck.
After going from one of his highest highs to his lowest lows, Hightower appeared in front of any camera he could, talking to anyone and everyone to spread the word about his missing chair.
“I was just pleading with whoever took it to just give it back. I didn’t want to press charges. I just wanted my chair back,” Hightower said.
The chair is so precious to Hightower that he even has it tattooed on his shoulder accompanied with “USA Paralympian” (as well as “Gimp 4 Life” on his other shoulder). Eventually, Hightower found his chair abandoned at a nearby park. The roller coaster ride that was that day is indicative of his racing career. In twenty years of racing, Hightower has accomplished so much: Breaking the sprint record, representing Team USA at the Beijing Paralympic games, and winning multiple medals in national competitions. But Hightower has also had his low-points. He did not qualify for Team USA for the 2012 Paralympics in London. He was one point away from joining the team.
The disappointment drove him to kick his training into high gear. He now lives at the Team USA Olympic complex in Chula Vista, CA training fulltime for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve been fairly lucky up until now only training twice a week and still being top-5 in the world,” Hightower said. “I’m up to training six days a week. I’m up to #4 in the world in the 100 meter (sprint), I broke the American record so I think stepping up in my training a little bit is really helping. Hopefully I can bring home a medal in Rio.”
Hightower recently returned to his hometown of Phoenix, AZ, taking a short break from racing before his training and race schedule picks up. With a focus on the next few years and more intense training regimen than ever, Hightower knows his time away form the track will be limited. He couldn’t even bring his racing chair back to the Valley for fear that he would spend his entire vacation training.
“I’m just trying to take a break. There’s been a lot of hard training the past eight months. Next year we have world championships and the Pan Am games so basically our season is from January to November,” he said. “I’m just trying to see some family, taking a little bit of a break, and then hitting the training hard again.”