25 years after Paralympic debut, Cheri Madsen claims ninth career medal

Cheri Madsen of the United States on the podium after winning bronze in the women's 100m T54 at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics
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On Wednesday at the Tokyo Paralympics, U.S. track & field athlete Cheri Madsen won bronze in the women’s 100m T54, crossing the line in 16.33 seconds. The bronze marks Madsen’s ninth career medal at the Paralympic Games.

China’s Zhou Zhaoqian claimed gold (15.90) and Finland’s Amanda Kotaja earned silver (15.93). The other American in the final – Hannah Dederick – placed fourth (16.36), finishing just three one-hundredths of a second behind Madsen.

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Cheri Madsen (then Cheri Becerra) made her Paralympic debut 25 years ago at the 1996 Atlanta Games. She won four medals in that first Paralympic appearance while competing in the T53 classification: silver in the 100m and 200m, and bronze in the 400m and 800m.

Cheri Madsen (center, then Cheri Becerra) competing in the 800m at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games.
Cheri Madsen (center, then Cheri Becerra) competing in the 800m at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

“Back then I was just so young and so confident,” Madsen told Olympic Information Service after today’s race. “I definitely have a lot more nerves now. My start’s not the best. As you can see, I kind of get off the line a little bit later than everyone else.”

Still, the 44-year-old Madsen is faster now than she was in 1996. Her bronze-medal winning time today (16.33) is 0.41 seconds faster than her silver-medal winning time 25 years ago in Atlanta.

Here’s a look at Madsen’s progression in the 100m at the Paralympics:

  • 1996 Atlanta – Silver in the 100m (16.74 seconds)
  • 2000 Sydney – Gold in the 100m (16.59)
  • 2016 Rio – 5th in the 100m (16.40)
  • 2021 Tokyo – Bronze in the 100m (16.33)
Cheri Madsen (then Cheri Becerra) celebrates winning the women's 100m at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games held at Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia.
Cheri Madsen (then Cheri Becerra) celebrates winning the women’s 100m at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Adam Pretty/ALLSPORT via Getty Images)

After winning another three medals at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, Madsen retired from track & field at age 24 to start a family.

She married her husband – Eric Madsen – in 2001 and gave birth to daughters Reese and Malayna.

It was a tragic accident that sparked Madsen’s return to the sport.

Shortly after Malayna’s birth in 2006, Madsen’s younger brother Mario III asked her when she was going to start competing again.

“I said ‘What?’ I thought he was crazy. I’d just had a baby,” Madsen told the Omaha World-Herald in 2016. “Some of his best memories were watching me compete, and he wanted the girls to experience what he had experienced.”

Six months later, Mario III and their father, Mario Jr., were killed when their car collided with a train.

Madsen ultimately decided to resume competing as a way to honor them.

She made her international return at the 2013 IPC World Athletics Championships and then qualified for the Rio Paralympics, where she won Paralympic medal No. 8: silver in the 400m T54.

2016 Rio Paralympics - Day 4
Cheri Madsen (left) on the podium after winning silver in the 400m T54 at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Fellow American Tatyana McFadden (center) claimed gold, while China’s Lihong Zou (right) claimed bronze. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)

Madsen has seen seismic shifts in the para sports arena since she first got started.

“I’ve got to see all the things we talked about in the 90s, about changes we wanted to see, come true,” she said. “We get a lot more support from US Paralympics. Back in the 90s, we did a lot of fundraising to get to meets and to be able to compete, and now we have a lot of support.”

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One such example? Prize money. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics will mark the first Summer Games in which U.S. Paralympians receive the same prize money as their Olympic counterparts. Prior to 2018, Olympians received $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze, while Paralympians received $7,500, $5,250 and $3,750, respectively.

While Madsen still has one race still remaining in Tokyo – the 400m T54 – she is convinced these Paralympics will be her last.

“I’ll be 45 in a couple of weeks,” she said. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to retire from the Games, but I don’t want the Games to retire me… I feel like I’m ready to be done.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics

NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:

  • A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
  • Events can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.