CAPE ELIZABETH — At only 23, Christina Kouros is already a beacon of hope for athletes who face an uphill battle.
Kouros said she was always active and enjoyed competing on Cape Elizabeth’s high school track and Nordic ski teams.
But Kouros was born without a right leg and, although she didn’t let her disability hold her back, it was hard not to dote on what set her apart from her teammates, rather than what they all had in common – passion.
“It was fun because I got to compete with normal, able-bodied athletes. All the teammates and coaches were super supportive of me,” she recalled. ” … (But) I have all this equipment that I have to use and (my teammates) didn’t really look like me. I’d stand out.”
Kouros now embraces what makes her unique, competing in wheelchair races across New England. But every August, on the first Saturday of the month, Kouros is sure to clear her schedule for a race that hits particularly close to home: the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race.
Kouros has been competing in the wheelchair division since 2011, and is a five-time champion. This years 21st annual race will take place Aug. 4. Wheelchair competitors start at 7:55 a.m., followed by the elite women at 8 a.m. and the general field at 8:12 a.m.
A portion of the 6.4-mile route takes Kouros past the house where she grew up, where her parents still live, on Shore Road.
“(Beach to Beacon) means a lot to me,” she said. “It’s my hometown race.”
Kouros now has an apartment in Portland, but still spends a lot of time at her parent’s home in Cape Elizabeth.
She was adopted from India when she was a baby. She lived in Durham, New Hampshire, for most of her childhood before she and her family moved to Maine just before she entered fifth grade.
It wasn’t until her freshman year at Cape Elizabeth High School that Kouros obtained her first racing chair, the one she still uses.
For many years, Kouros was the only female in the Beach to Beacon field of typically three or four wheelchair competitors.
“For the longest time, I was the only female racer,” Kouros said.
But as the race has grown, so has her competition. This year, Kouros will race alongside 12 opponents, four of whom are women – the largest field of wheelchair athletes, female and overall, in Beach to Beacon history.
Though she has the most experience on the course, Kouros is not the fastest in her field, nor does she intend to be.
“I just do it for fun, whereas (other wheelchair athletes) mostly do it professionally,” she said.
Last year, her time was 37:34, trailing Hannah Babalola, of Nigeria, and Yen Hoang, of Champaign, Illinois, who placed first and second with times of 28:26 and 29:57, respectively. Both Babalola and Hoang are returning in this year’s field.
Deb Maxfield, marketing director of Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, said she’s excited to see Kouros.
“She gets better and better every year and has really pushed her skill,” Maxfield said. “This year will be even more exciting.”
Kouros said her goal each year is simply to beat her time from the previous year.
“It’s just my own pressure … (but) this isn’t my profession,” she said.
This spring, Kouros completed her third year at the University of Maine at Farmington, studying elementary education. In the fall, she plans to continue her education as a student-teacher at Riverton Elementary School in Portland.
That doesn’t mean Kouros is giving up on a goal to compete in the Paralympic Games, but she’d like to do it in Nordic skiing, rather than wheelchair racing.
“I was on the Paralympic (Nordic ski team) in high school, but I took a break to focus on school,” she said. “I like (skiing and road racing) equally, but in different ways. Skiing is just a little more peaceful.”
For now, she’s focusing on race day, Aug. 4, by training on the route five to six times a week.
She’s also looking forward to another facet of the annual race. Every year on race day, the wheelchair competitors meet at The Landing, an assisted living facility on Scott Dyer Road, which hosts Beach to Beacon wheelchair athletes from out of town.
“I see them all at different races throughout the year. That community is so nice and supportive … and are willing to help me. It’s good to learn from them,” she said.
Kouros said that if she could teach other athletes with a disability one thing, it would be to “not be embarrassed that you’re different.”
“I was born with a disability so I don’t know any different … (but) it’s hard to get used to standing out,” she said. “But you shouldn’t be embarrassed to be different. Embrace who you are.”
Christina Kouros at what she said is the hardest part of the 6.4-mile TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race – the uphill path just inside the Fort Williams Park gate. Kouros, who attended Cape Elizabeth schools, will compete in the wheelchair division for the seventh time on Aug. 4.