Marathon Standout Daniel Romanchuk Joins the Clif Family
It’s a Thursday afternoon in May and a typical, COVID-19 day for Daniel Romanchuk. He’s at home with his parents in Mt. Airy, Maryland, where he’s been since a week before the canceled New York City Half Marathon, which he was supposed to race on March 15. Later this day, he'll head out for a 13-mile push along the country roads surrounding the family home where he grew up. After that, he’ll lift weights, then do some yard work with his parents.
The 21-year-old wheelchair-racing phenom normally lives in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he attends Parkland College and trains with Coach Adam Bleakney and 25 other athletes on the University of Illinois Wheelchair Track Team. But Romanchuk, who’s won four out of six World Marathon Majors in the past year, is not focused on what he doesn’t have. He’s not hung up on the Paralympics being put off a year, or the fact that the Boston Marathon he won in 2019 was canceled for 2020. Brooding is not his style.
Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spinal cord, Romanchuk was playing sports by age 2. His parents got him involved in the Bennett Blazers Physically Challenged Sports Program, a branch of Maryland’s Kennedy Krieger Institute that teaches motor development skills and sports for kids and adults with physical disabilities. “The world may look at an adaptive athlete and notice what’s missing or non-functioning,” continues Romanchuk. “To me, and at Bennett, the emphasis is on what you do have. You’ll never hear them or an athlete say, ‘My legs don’t work so I can’t do that.’ Instead, it’s, ‘How can you use what you have to reach that goal?’” He says that at Bennett, “you’re not treated as a poor kid in a wheelchair, you’re an athlete.”
“It’s hard to over-emphasize how important that’s been in growing up, and my current philosophy as an athlete,” he says.
And, as an athlete, Romanchuk has had an amazing run in his young life. While playing everything from basketball to sled hockey to competing in triathlons and archery as a kid, he showed a proclivity for track and raced his first marathon at age 14, then his first Chicago Marathon at age 16. He’s returned to the Chicago Marathon every year since 2014, where, he says, he’d just try to stay with the lead pack for longer and longer each year. With his mom’s encouragement to make the 2016 Paralympic team, Romanchuk’s focus on wheelchair racing continued. At 18 years old, he made Team USA and competed in every track event in Rio.
It was the 2018 Chicago Marathon where Romanchuk started making headlines. Then 20 years old, the calculated, strategic athlete (“I’m not a really emotion-driven racer,” he says) out-sprinted returning champion Marcel Hug to win by one second. One month later, he won the New York City Marathon in the same manner. A few months after that, Romanchuk won the 2019 Boston Marathon where he was the first American to win the men's wheelchair race since 1993, and then the London Marathon, which also served as the World Para Athletics Marathon Championships. Daniel broke his own 5000M World Record twice in the space of a week in the spring of 2019, and later that fall he won the 2019 Chicago and New York City Marathons, making him the youngest marathon Grand Slam winner in history.
Romanchuk downplays his success. “Fall and spring were very busy and filled with learning opportunities,” he says, referring to the increased media interest generated by the wins. He credits mentors like retired coach Marty Morse and current coach Adam Bleakney for helping him strategize race courses and developing mental focus on how to read the lead pack. He also credits the new carbon fiber wheelchair he obtained before Boston 2018, a race where he says he was surprised to finish 3rd.
But there’s no one Romanchuk credits more than his mom, Kim. “She’s just been everywhere, done everything,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without her. It’s kind of hard to talk about it without getting quite emotional.”
The young Romanchuk has become an inspiration and mentor on many levels, returning to the Bennett Blazers program often to help out in any way he can. Lately, he’s been coaching young Bennett athlete workouts via Zoom a few times a week. “That’s been really great,” he says.
He also recently helped deliver 10,000 Clif Bars to the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “I was a patient at Kennedy before I was even born, and the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists there were always a source of hope and encouragement for me and my family,” says Romanchuk. “It means a lot to be able to bring it full circle and give them some encouragement in return during these challenging times with COVID-19.”
And, while COVID-19 has sidelined Romanchuk from racing in the near future, and he isn’t sure what’s next on his docket, he’s definitely not resting on his laurels. “I really don’t like to dwell or think about the past,” he says.
Like a true leader, he’s always looking ahead.
Daniel Romanchuk Athlete Profile
I had to move fast as the youngest of three kids growing up in Mt. Airy, MD. Everyone played sports, so there was no question I would, too. You name it, I played it, just a little differently.