Evelyn Felipez remembers the first time she laid eyes upon the track at Eastern Illinois University's O'Brien Stadium.
"It was breathtaking," she said of last weekend's girls state track meet. "It was huge. It was a crazy experience."
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Felipez said she was excited to be surrounded by athletes and see the stands filled with fans. But when the Lakes High School freshman wheeled herself to the starting post, there was one thought and one goal: win.
She did, and in the process made history.
In the first wheelchair races hosted by IHSA, Felipez took home two medals, first in the 100-meter and second in the 200-meter races. The significance of her accomplishment hit after her first race.
"I was thinking in my head, 'I am the first wheelchair champion in IHSA history,' " she said. "I was really overwhelmed."
Felipez was born was spina bifida, a condition where the spine does not close fully. Paralyzed from the knees down, she uses ankle to knee braces to help her move. If traveling longer distance, she uses the wheelchair. But her father, Jon, said Evelyn was born with an outlook that she can do anything.
"She has a competitive nature. She told me years ago as a child, 'Well, you know, I'm always up for a challenge.' I've always kept that in my mind," Jon said.
At age 7, Evelyn took tae kwon do and also has started judo. She has become a certified scuba diver through a program called Dive Heart. Her list of activities beyond athletics is lengthy, too. She was named runner-up Little Miss Lake Villa, has played the violin since first grade, and she joined auditions to compete on "The Voice," although she did not get a callback.
"I want to show people there's a lot more to me than my crutches and braces," Evelyn said. "I can do all the stuff that anyone else can do. I want to prove people wrong."
Evelyn took her first step into team sports in sixth grade when she was approached by Cindy Housner, director of the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, who invited her to join the track program. Practicing once a week, Evelyn competes in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races as well as discus, javelin and shot put.
It was Housner who encouraged her when she came to Lakes to join its track team. Even though there were no other wheelchair racers, Evelyn said she practiced each day and joined every meet, focusing on improving her speed.
"When my coaches tell me my times, I always try to go faster the next time," she said.
Teammate Rachel Perry said Evelyn loves to compete and works hard to improve.
"It's really inspirational. You can get caught up in beating the other team, but what it's really all about is being your personal best and doing the best you can," said Terry, who graduated last Sunday.
Evelyn not only loves the sport for the challenge but also the interaction with teammates and coaches. Entering her freshman year, Evelyn admits she was scared how she would be seen. But she said she has made many new friends who see her as another athlete.
"You have a great bond with them as you spend time with them, practice with them and compete with them," she said. "We're all a huge family."
While Terry may help her carry her bags or help her into the wheelchair, Terry said Evelyn does not let her disability affect her personality. She smiles walking through the hallways. During down time, Terry said they talk about the band One Direction and dresses they'd like to get for upcoming occasions.
"I can talk to her like any person on the team," she said.
Toward the end of the track season, Evelyn was urged to keep practicing. It was when she realized other state qualifiers on her team were still practicing too, that Evelyn said she realized she was now training to compete at state.
"I said, 'So that's why I'm here. That's why I'm practicing,' " she said. "No one told me everything. It was funny."
At the state meet, Evelyn raced against Chicago Curie freshman Stella McMillan, whom Evelyn had competed against before at regional and national meets organized by GLASA. Evelyn said McMillan was a great competitor at the state meet.
"Both races were close," she said. "For the 100, I was a little bit ahead of her and in the 200 I was slightly behind. It was truly an adrenaline rush."
Seeing Evelyn compete downstate was a proud moment for him and wife Siri, Jon said. He thinks Evelyn was proud to represent Lakes that day, too.
"I could tell by her demeanor and her intensity on the track that it meant a lot to her to be on the team," he said.
Evelyn will not go far from the track this summer as she competes in the GLASA national competition. While she's qualified to compete in javelin, she hopes to qualify for additional events.
Excited to get a jacket to display the varsity letter she earned, Evelyn also looks forward to competing again with Lakes' track team and qualifying for longer-distance races.
She may not be heard on "The Voice" this season, but Lakes fans have not heard the last from this ambitious student-athlete.