When Noelle Malkamaki broke the world record in the women’s shot put F46 for the first time, she didn’t even realize it.
It was earlier this summer, while competing at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in Chula Vista, California. Malkamaki said she wasn’t having her best meet and ended up not feeling the thrill she thought she would.
The circumstances were different when she broke her own world record two months later. In fact, Malkamaki set a new record three separate times during last month’s World Para Athletics Championships in Paris, with the official record of 13.32 meters coming on her final throw. That was more than enough to secure the gold medal in Malkamaki’s world championships debut.
“The energy was better, and I enjoyed the performance personally,” Malkamaki, 22, said.
Her journey to the world record has been a short and fast one, although, she said, it did not seem like it would ever begin at the outset.
The Decatur, Illinois, native, whose right hand never developed due to amniotic band syndrome, began throwing in middle school and earned a scholarship to DePaul University in Chicago. Two years into her NCAA career, her coach brought up the Paralympics.
With no concept of how many classifications existed in Paralympic competition and what qualification entailed, Malkamaki was hesitant.
“I was a complete outsider,” she said. “It wasn’t even like I was looking in from the outside; I just didn’t have the information.”
Malkamaki initially worried, she said, that she was not “disabled enough.”
“Those were the words that I used because I didn’t have any idea or understanding of how everything worked,” she said.
There were many steps to the process of getting classified, and many times when she wondered if she was going about everything correctly.
She eventually received her national classification, followed by her international classification. And finally, she said, “the ball really started moving.”
For a while, Malkamaki felt like she was living in two different worlds. She was a Division I athlete, attending meets against able-bodied athletes one day, then she’d be competing as a Para athlete the next.
After a year of pursuing Para competition, Malkamaki said, “it’s weird living in these two spheres, but the more I think about it, I’m realizing that there are ways that these two things can be the same.”
Malkamaki had a successful senior season at DePaul, where she throws discus and hammer in addition to the shot put. She took fourth place in the shot put at the Big East outdoor championships.
With one year of eligibility left at DePaul (granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic), Malkamaki has started to feel more comfortable competing in college and on the Para international stage.
“I don’t have to be two different athletes,” she said. “I’m one athlete that takes up space in both, and that’s OK.”
Her experience in Paris helped Malkamaki become more accepting of that, as she was able to interact with other athletes who have similar experiences. She quickly discovered she was not the only one struggling mentally with the dichotomy.
“Among the other athletes on the U.S. Para team who are also in college sports, we’re all able to talk to one another and make each other feel secure,” she said. “We can all tackle this together and work through some of these confusing feelings together.”
One of Malkamaki’s closest friends on the national team is Liza Corso, who won a silver medal in the women’s 1500-meter T13 in Paris. The visually impaired distance runner will be entering her junior year this fall at Lipscomb University in Nashville.
“She was the first person I talked to about, ‘Hey, am I normal for feeling this way?’” Malkamaki said of Corso.
The two women supported each other throughout training and watched each other compete in Paris.
Malkamaki is grateful that she will have the support at DePaul as she competes through her fifth season while also training with an eye on next summer’s Paralympic Games Paris 2024.
“I really have a lot of trust in my college program right now,” she said.
Malkamaki will add in more plyometric exercises into her strength-training regime, she said, with the hopes of making her both stronger but also more explosive.
“I want to leave the college system with a bang because I’m really grateful for the time that I’ve had here,” she said.
Malkamaki knows that once she leaves college, her training will become much more single-minded. Ultimately, she hopes to break her own world record again, perhaps at the Paralympics. She has not taken a break since she began Para competitions, and she doesn’t plan to before Paris.
“Why mess with something that isn’t broken?” she said.