Referred to as a “generational” athlete — as in a once-in-a-generation talent — Daniel Romanchuk, at the age of 22, is the reigning men’s wheelchair world champion in the 800 and the marathon, having dominated the major wheelchair racing marathons since 2019, is the T54 world record holder in the 800- and 5,000-meter distances, and is the American record holder in all Paralympic distances.
He’s also a down-to-earth Christian who attends Stone Creek Church (AG) in Urbana, Illinois. In October 2019, Romanchuk spoke what could be seen as nearly prophetic words.
As he was preparing for a heavy itinerary of events in November 2019 and looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Romanchuk shared his inspirational story with AG News.
Yet, as the interview drew to a close, he shared what now seems to be a remarkably timely philosophy of life, stating:
“The one thing I’ve learned in life is don’t try to make too much of a plan or hold too tightly to it — God’s plan may be very different, everything could change tomorrow. So pray, trust God, He has a plan — He knows where everything is going to end up — and trust that His plan is the best.”
Roughly two weeks after that interview, Romanchuk went on a challenging two-week tour that saw him win the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3; compete in the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Nov. 7-15), and win gold in the 800-meter event; and then he placed third (four seconds out of first place) in the Oita Marathon in Japan on Nov. 17.
With this incredible show of endurance and demonstration of elite giftings, everything was lining up perfectly for Romanchuk’s journey to potential gold at the Paralympics in Tokyo, but “…God’s plan may be very different, everything could change tomorrow.”
No one ever imagined, perhaps even as early as when Romanchuk uttered those words in October 2019, that a new and deadly virus was already in existence; a virus that would not just cause Romanchuk’s life to change, but the world to change.
“In March (2020), I was out in Maryland to get some hill training in right before the New York City half-marathon, when pretty much everything started to shut down [due to COVID-19],” Romanchuk says. “I was stuck out there, with my parents as well, for the next few months.”
At the time, officials were talking about “return to normal” in terms of weeks, but as more was learned about the virus, and death tolls climbed dramatically, events months away began to cancel. Among those events cancelled or postponed were the dream of athletes around the world — the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan.
Although disappointed, Romanchuk determined to simply hone his craft. As he couldn’t train with his teammates, he went back to solo training.
“Weight training became a little bit interesting,” he admits with a laugh. “I had to use a 50-pound bag of wheat and five-gallon water jugs as weights until the equipment I ordered could be sent.”
While others may have mentally struggled through isolation and the loss of opportunities, Romanchuk lived up to his words, “. . . So pray, trust God, He has a plan — He knows where everything is going to end up — and trust that His plan is the best.”
“I tried to take everything just a day at a time,” Romanchuk says. “In training, I would just focus on one thing at a time and worked on that, taking it day by day, knowing that when competition returned, all the stuff I’ve been doing will add up.”
Over the following months, in addition to training on his own and doing online workouts with other athletes, he provided online training for youth, did an online camp for kids, and continued to attend Stone Creek Church — online — and even ended up joining an online life group through the church.
In the spring and summer, Romanchuk partnered with Paralympian Krige Schabort to do a series of YouTube videos (The Basics of Wheelchair Racing Equipment) for new racers to help take the mystery out of the competition chairs.
“We did that for about 10 weeks, a new session each week, working through a part of the chair each week — how to fix it and generally how they worked,” Romanchuk explains. “And now, there’s an online resource anyone can go to and troubleshoot on their own.”
Schabort, 57, is a native of South Africa, but a U.S. citizen since 2009. He’s also a six-time Paralympic athlete and the 2014 ITU Paratriathlon World Champion. In 2015, he was named the ESPY Male Para Athlete of the Year . . . he has nothing but praise for Romanchuk, whom he’s known for about five or six years.
“He’s a standout kind of person,” Schabort says. “In all my 30 years of racing, the guy is head and shoulders above all the other top athletes that I know . . . he’s phenomenal — a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.”
Schabort laughs at a memory of meeting Romanchuk as a young teen. “I was showing him how to change a tire on a racing wheelchair, him and his dad were right next to me — I have it on video. I never thought that I was showing the world’s best athlete ever how to change a tire!”
As a Christian, Schabort also appreciates how Romanchuk handles himself.
“It’s nice to see someone crossing the finish line, winning big time, and giving the Lord honor — he’s faith first, that’s for sure,” Schabort says of Romanchuk. “He’s a true believer, a humble guy who understands his Savior is the One giving him the opportunity to race and he’s doing the best with what he’s been given.”
With his approach of trusting God and willingness to give of himself, Romanchuk says that the pandemic likely wasn’t as stressful for him as it was for some others. He notes that he appreciated getting to spend extra time with his dad, Stephan, who doesn’t get to travel to his competitions as much as his mother and manager, Kim, does.
Also in April 2020, a surprise. Despite the fact all major wheelchair racing events had been cancelled or were only held virtually for more than a year, Clif Bar® became one of his sponsors. Currently his name and likeness are on limited-edition packaging of chocolate brownie Clif Bar® energy bars and boxes. He also now wears a custom-painted Clif Bar® helmet at his races.
But Romanchuk maintains his perspective that “it could all disappear tomorrow.”
“Sport is what you do, it’s not who you are,” he says. “God gives you a platform for a purpose — for me, God’s given me a platform to glorify His name and to help others . . . whether I come in first or don’t even finish, remembering that He works all things for the good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28) helps me do what He wants me to do, no matter what happens, and that is to be a light and a good example.”
The summer of 2020, Romanchuk returned to Illinois and trained with teammates outdoors, but as fall approached, he headed to his grandmother’s home in Florida in order to safely train throughout the winter months.
Joey Gibbs, 24, Romanchuk’s former roommate and a strong para athlete who competed with the University of Illinois wheelchair racing team (2017-2021) and trained with Romanchuk, confirms that the Romanchuk a person meets for the first time is exactly who he is at all times.
“He’s genuine and a jokester, once you get to know him,” Gibbs says. “His character really does set him apart — in racing, he understands that it’s a gift from God . . . a blessing, but not a necessity.”
Gibbs adds that Romanchuk is a selfless elite athlete, giving freely of his time to help others.
“He wants to help people more than he wants to help himself,” Gibbs says. “And his attitude —always uplifting. You never hear him say anything bad about anybody. He’s just a good, upright guy.”
After returning to Illinois in April 2021 to train with the team, Romanchuk competed in events in Switzerland and Phoenix. In June, he set course for the Paralympic trials held in Minneapolis for making the U.S. Paralympic Team. Romanchuk competed in five track events: the 100-, 400-, 800-, 1500-, and 5000-meter races. He won all five events and earned the right to represent the United States in those events as well as the in the marathon (due to winning the 2019 Chicago Marathon, the Paralympic qualifying race) at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
And to add a little zest to the summer, on July 4, he won the Atlanta Peachtree 10K, which featured several other Paralympians competing in the field, by nearly a minute, and only a few seconds off the course record he established there in 2019.
But what’s truly amazing about Romanchuk’s racing accomplishments is that in the world of sports, there are very few examples of someone having the “quick twitch” muscles in order to compete as a world-class sprinter, the speed pace of a world-class mid-distance athlete, and then also the endurance level that it takes to compete as a world-class marathoner. However, even with all of his accomplishments, he doesn’t view himself as a “favorite” to win any of the Paralympic events.
“I might be somebody’s favorite,” he says, laughing. “But with my classification, the male T54 category, there are a lot of people in it and we’ll cross the line within a couple of seconds of each other, and I’m just in the mix.”
As the interview drew to a close, Romanchuk opened up an unexpected door of understanding concerning people in wheelchairs and undermined a common assumption — many people who use wheelchairs really don’t care about “walking again” or “being healed.” They don’t feel “confined to” or “bound to” their wheelchair. It’s simply a tool that allows them to chase their goals and live life.
“A wheelchair doesn’t change a person’s ability to be used by God,” Romanchuk states. “Complete strangers will come up and ask if they can pray for me, and they’re always praying for healing, when really I might need prayer for something else . . . I personally don’t feel like I need to be healed; God can use me wherever I am, however I am.”
Editor’s note: Those interested in following Romanchuk can do so on Facebook or Instagram (daniel.romanchuk). He will be competing in Tokyo on consecutive days, Aug. 27 through Sept. 2, in the track preliminaries and finals followed by the marathon road race on Sept. 5.