SouthWest Edgecombe senior Catherine Armstrong displays her 20 state championship medals on Thursday.

Telegram photo / Alan Campbell

SouthWest Edgecombe senior Catherine Armstrong displays her 20 state championship medals on Thursday.

PAVING THE WAY: Armstrong sets example for wheelchair athletes

By Jessie H. Nunery

Sports Editor

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The picture tells Catherine Armstrong’s story.

There she is, possessing the triumphant look of a champion.

Both arms are raised high above a navy blue Cougars jersey, and her eyes are squeezed shut as if she is trying to take a mental snapshot of the victorious moment.

Then, there is the smile that Armstrong takes everywhere she goes.

The photo was taken May 10 during the NCHSAA 2-A state track & field meet in Greensboro, and Armstrong, a SouthWest Edgecombe senior, had just completed her mile competition, capturing the last state championship of her career.

Armstrong’s final race was special not because she simply added to her state championship medal collection, but rather because the finish line of a race is not a place where the majority of people with spina bifida find themselves.

“I literally threw my hands up after my goal was completed,” Armstrong said of the picture she keeps on her cell phone. “I’m surprised that moment was captured.”

Armstrong wasn’t supposed to be a state champion.

When she was three months old, her parents, Henry and Angela, found out their only daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida, which occurs when a baby’s spinal canal remains open along several vertebrae in the lower or middle back.

In such cases, tissues and nerves often are exposed, making a child prone to life-threatening infections and neurological impairments.

Armstrong has undergone eight surgeries, the last when she was a middle school
student.

It was during middle school when Armstrong began to inquire about participating in track & field, but she was told there were no opportunities.

One afternoon as a freshman at SouthWest Edgecombe, Armstrong maneuvered quickly in her wheelchair through the hallways.

Kendra Jones, then the school’s track & field coach, noticed the speed in which Armstrong whizzed by her peers and encouraged her to come out to the team’s practice.

“I looked on the NCHSAA website, and saw there were events,” Armstrong said. “I love to go fast, so I said, ‘I’ll go do it. Why not?’”

Current coach Delphine Mabry and the Cougars program learned they had a strong-willed participant on their hands.

Armstrong became the first Eastern North Carolina female wheelchair participant her freshman season.

Her competition was not another athlete, but rather times set by the NCSHAA that she pushed herself to beat.

She won a pair of state championships in the 100 and 200 as a freshman.

The next season she tacked on four more, adding the 400 and 800 meter races to her list.

As a junior, despite being in a school bus accident the day before, Armstrong set state records in the shot put and discus while also winning the 100 and 800.

This year, she set her sights on the mile, and when she finished with a time of 7:31 – nearly three and a half minutes faster than the state-mandated time – Armstrong let out the emotion that has built up over time.

“I think that was the most exciting moment of her career,” Mabry said. “That was the icing on the cake for her.”

Including conference, regional, indoor and outdoor titles, Armstrong has earned 53 medals – 20 of which came from outdoor state championship meets.

Armstrong is proud of the medals that weigh down her neck if she attempts to wear them all at once, but those shiny, oversized coins and ribbons only tell half her story.

Armstrong’s legacy is bigger.

“She feels like she has broken the ice for wheelchair participants,” Mabry said.

People have told Armstrong as much, and Angela Armstrong has seen it with her own eyes.

There was the state meet in Greensboro one year when Angela Armstrong was focused on her daughter’s race. Suddenly, she became distracted by the rolling wave of cheers.

They were all for Catherine, who seemingly had every spectator at the N.C. A&T track & field complex watching her spin her way down the lanes.

“I was shocked how many people received her in the stadium,” Angela Armstrong said. “You could hear the cheers going all the way around. I could not believe it.”

Armstrong has become a celebrity at state meets, where she often takes pictures and even signs autographs for athletes of other schools well after the events are complete.

One security guard recently asked her to sign his vest.

A few years back, a gentleman asked Catherine how she became involved in competitive wheelchair events.

A year later, his son, Bryce Floyd, a South Lenoir student, began participating in wheelchair races.

Catherine and Bryce began dating soon after.

“My goal is to see more wheelchair athletes join track, and luckily, I got the opportunity to see three other amazing people join, and they are enjoying it,” Armstrong said.

She doesn’t want to stop competing, especially since the past year has brought her events in which she has actually had an opponent.

The first came during the indoor track season, when she defeated Caroline Booz in the 55 meter dash.

In one of the more memorable competitions of her last outdoor meet, Armstrong came in second in the discus throw – and she couldn’t have been happier.

“Everybody thought I would be disappointed,” Armstong said. “I was like, ‘I finally got second in the state championship.’”

There are only a few schools across the country that offer track & field for wheelchair participants.

Armstrong plans to attend Edgecombe Community College for two years before transferring.

The University of Illinois has a track & field program that interests Armstrong.

Until then, she’ll work on acquiring a handheld device that will aid in her ability to drive a car.

It’s about the only thing Armstrong can’t do for herself.

It’s why she’ll go on giggling while talking and maintaining the attitude of any other state champion.

“I just try and be like everybody else,” Armstrong said.

She uses crutches and wears braces on her legs to help her walk.

Many spina bifida patients aren’t nearly as fortunate.

Those who are capable have an example in Armstrong.

Surely, there are more who want to follow but didn’t know there was such an opportunity.

Armstrong shows it can be done with successful results.

“I would love to see all eight lanes full at the state meet,” Angela Armstrong said. “It’ll happen one day.”

Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or
jhnunery@rmtelegram.com