by Lela Moore | usparatf
Arelle Middleton knew her throw of 12.02 meters was good enough for a California state title in the shot put last May.
What the Los Osos High School freshman did not know at the time was that the mark would have won her a gold medal in the women’s F64 classification at the Para track and field world championships later that summer.
Middleton found that out in December when U.S. Paralympics Track & Field named her its High School Female Field Athlete of the Year. The 15-year-old received one of the top honors among 44 athletes who made the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field High School All-American list.
“It was a pretty big deal to me,” Middleton said. “To get recognized for all the work, to see that other people think I’m a good thrower.”
Sandra Van Embricqs, Middleton’s mother, said that the recognition was “totally unexpected” and a “nice surprise” after watching her daughter’s talent for throwing develop over the years.
Van Embricqs, a high school basketball coach and French teacher at Chino High School in California, has always encouraged Middleton to compete in sports.
In 2019 and 2020, Middleton won Southern California sectional matches in wheelchair tennis, and she now competes at a high level in both track and wheelchair basketball.
Currently, Van Embricqs drives Middleton, now a sophomore at Los Osos, an hour each way to wheelchair basketball practice twice a week, before or after school. Van Embricqs said she is relieved now that her daughter can train for track and field at her high school. Middleton did not participate in indoor track this season but is preparing for her outdoor season this spring.
Middleton’s left leg is about six inches shorter than her right, and her left hip is also underdeveloped, because of a congenital femoral deficiency. Officially classified as F44, she would have competed in F64 at the world championships as F44 was not on the program for shot put.
While Middleton has competed in Para track and field meets like the Angel City Games, where she first realized her throwing talents, Van Embriqcs encouraged her to try out for her high school track and field team and to compete against able-bodied athletes in the sport.
“As a mom, as a coach, I’ve just been watching it in awe because I knew what she could do in the Para world,” Van Embriqcs said.
Middleton has participated in Para track and field clinics since age 12 and, more often than not, she wound up at the top of the podium at those competitions.
“But to see her compete against able-bodied people in the way that she has this past year, that’s been pretty amazing,” Van Embriqcs said.
While Middleton thrives in both the discus and the shot out, she prefers the shot put because it requires less footwork, which is more complex for her because of her shorter left leg.
Van Embriqcs termed Middleton’s success in track and field as “icing on the cake” for her daughter.
“Having a disability and always having people look at you as ‘less than’ or ‘less capable than,’ and then to have her beat them out as a freshman, that was amazing,” Van Embriqcs said.
Middleton’s teammates, as well as her high school coaches and athletic director, have embraced her.
“I’m really happy for that, because not everybody has that experience,” Van Embriqcs said.
“The older you get, the less people really care about it,” Middleton added.
Set to graduate in 2026, Middleton aspires to compete in college and beyond in both wheelchair basketball and track and field. Right now, though, she said mostly basketball programs have been approaching her. Some programs will allow her to do both sports, and she believes that the cross-training will benefit her performance in each one.
Before Middleton even considers college offers, there’s a gigantic athletic opportunity in the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 this August. The prospect of competing on the world’s largest stage would be enticing no matter what, but Middleton has family in Europe who would provide a large cheering section for her if she qualified for the Games.
Both mother and daughter are learning the ropes of the Paralympic qualification process as they go.
“There’s a lot to learn,” Van Embriqcs said. “(But) I’m excited for Arelle. Her future looks bright, and I think 2024 is going to be an exciting year.”