staff, January 10, 2015

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Every Big Ten school has produced leaders who have reached the pinnacle of their professions, whether business, government, science and technology, medicine or education. High Profile takes a look at how these alums rose to the top of their field.

Some men are born with greatness, while others have it thrust upon them. For Josh George, it?s a little bit of both.

Despite losing the use of his legs at an early age, the University of Illinois grad went on to become an Olympic and marathon champion, American ambassador and entrepreneur. Oh, and he just turned 30 this year.

His successes as a wheelchair racing medalist in the past three Olympic games - including gold in 2008 - has allowed him to travel the world, inspiring others with his story.

That story starts with his injury, which is pretty miraculous in itself. It happened when he was a 4-year-old living in the Washington, D.C., area.

?I was supposed to be napping,? he said. ?But I wasn?t.?

Instead, while playing by himself in his bedroom, George fell out of a 12-story window. Amazingly, he landed on his feet in some bushes. The story goes that the accident was witnessed by some horrified neighbors, who had him taken to the hospital right away.

?My parents didn?t even know what happened.?

Amazingly, George had no discernible damage to his brain, arms or any other part of his body. Just his legs.

His parents were undaunted, trying to make his childhood as normal as possible. However, he proved himself to be far from normal.

?After the accident they treated me as if nothing had changed,? he said. ?They went around looking for ways I could remain active.?

That meant driving an hour and a half to a wheelchair program in Baltimore. It turned out to be a worthwhile effort, one that pushed George to be as energetic and kinetic as any youngster. And when he got older, he played sports through high school and earned a partial scholarship for basketball at the University of Illinois.

?That was my main focus when I came to school,? he said. ?After my first practice with wheelchair racing, my coach saw some potential with me and pushed me.?

That turned out to be a crucial moment for George - one that translated into an opportunity to compete in his first Paralympic games at Athens in 2004, where he earned a bronze in the 100 and 400 meter races.

?I didn?t really realize what potential I had until then,? George said. ?Two bronze. That sort of solidified it for me. You?re standing up on the medal stand, and I was like, ?I really can do something with this sport.??

For George, though, third place wasn?t enough. It inspired him to continue his training and come back stronger and faster.

?I had a passion for the sport, but when I?m sitting there with a bronze around my neck and seeing others with gold, it made want to get back and training,? he said.

Fast-forward four years. Competing in the 2008 Games in Beijing, he came out on top, winning gold in the 100 while also grabbing a silver in the 800. And at the 2012 Games in London, he took another bronze in the 800, giving him a total of four medals.

?Every one of those medals is very special,? he said. ?A lot of work goes into those games. I live my life on four-year cycles."

But he?s not done yet. He?s looking for more top finishes in Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2016 games. He has already traveled there and plans to go back a few more times before again representing the United States in competition.

In addition to his success as an Olympian, George can add the title of four-time Chicago Marathon champ to his résumé, including last year?s race.

His achievements on the track have allowed George to make a difference in the world. He was chosen on behalf of the U.S. State Department to serve as a diplomat for a program called SportsUnited, becoming the first paralympic athlete to be selected.

?You go into athletics and you do it because you have a selfish drive to do it, but there?s this whole other side of sports,? George said. ?It?s this tool for creating change, creating bonds. To be able to make a trip like that to use sports for its social benefits really makes you feel good.?


He is also planning for a life after sports, joining up with other Illinois grads at IntelliWheels Inc., a company that?s created a cutting-edge wheelchair with features that allow users to move with more ease and speed.

His involvement came about while training in Champaign, Ill., when he met company co-founders Marissa Siebel and Scott Daigle. Siebel remembers meeting him for the first time while she was working as an athletic trainer.

?Josh had just come back into the community, and started training again,? she said. ?We went from the gym to Josh joining the company.?

Today, George finds himself in the enviable position of being able to look to the future while still enjoying the fruits of his past success.

?It really makes you appreciate the life that you?re living and the opportunity that sports provide,? he said.

By Matthew Wood