Two years ago, Dani Aravich ’18 quit her full-time job to become a Paralympic athlete.
Once a distance runner at Butler University, she taught herself to sprint, switching from long, loose strides to pulling her knees up high and hitting the ground fast. She pieced together part-time work, fitting meetings between track workouts and strength sessions as she focused on qualifying for Tokyo.
And on June 24, 2021, she found out she made it.
“This has just been the first part of the journey,” she says. “Now the real work begins.”
At the Summer Paralympic Games later this month, Aravich will represent Team USA in the 400-meter sprint. Six months later, she plans to ski at the Winter Paralympics in Beijing. Leaving behind a 9–5 job to pursue a lifestyle of training and travel has been scary, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever go back.
Aravich was born without her left hand and forearm. She started running in high school, then competed in track and cross country during her first year at Butler, but she didn’t discover parasports until after college. Aravich had always planned to work on the business side of sports. She left Butler’s track team after a year to focus more on academics, majoring in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, then began her post-grad career in a ticket sales role with the Utah Jazz. She didn’t expect to compete again.
Then in late 2018, a family friend told her about the Paralympics.
“Before that, I had no idea I was eligible,” Aravich says. “I don’t even think the coach at Butler knew I was missing a hand before he met me. I have always done able-bodied sports.”
The idea sparked her interest. After some research, she found out there were no distance running events, and she almost gave up. She didn’t know how to sprint—a running style that felt like a different sport from the distance races she was used to. But she looked up the time she would need to hit and thought it might be possible.
After five months of training, Aravich ran her first Para race.
“I tripped and fell with 10 meters left,” she recalls. “I was totally cut up and embarrassed. After that experience, I genuinely wanted to quit. But I gave it a few more races, and I got better. Then I ended up just diving in.”
Aravich attributes this perseverance to her time at Butler.
“I don’t think I would have had the guts to do something as crazy as stopping my career and trying something like this if I hadn’t gone to Butler,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to go all in.”
Even after leaving Butler’s track team, Aravich was eager to stay involved on campus. She spent her student years playing club soccer and intramural sports. She joined Greek Life, worked as a student ambassador, and studied abroad twice—a highlight of her college career. Aravich first fell in love with Indianapolis for its dedication to sports, and she had the chance to experience the city through internships with the Indiana Pacers, the Indianapolis Colts, and Sun King Brewery.
“I was able to learn and grow so much,” she says. “The people I met and the experiences I had at Butler helped me find myself and become more willing to put in hard work. I absolutely adored my time, and I can’t recommend Butler enough.”
Soon after joining the Paralympics community, Aravich was recruited into a second sport: Nordic skiing. She typically keeps the two activities separate, skiing in the winter and running in the summer. But now, with the Summer Games this month and the Winter Games in half a year, she’s molding two training plans together.
“The two sports are very different, so it has been interesting to figure out how to integrate them,” Aravich explains. “But we’re making it work.”
Two years of dedicated training paid off on June 19, 2021. After testing negative for COVID-19 three times, Aravich walked onto a high school track in Minneapolis. She took off her mask and looked up to the bleachers. They were empty.
“Because of COVID, they didn’t allow any spectators at the trials,” Aravich says. “It was quite odd to be running at such an important, high-level competition and just look and see that no one is there.”
Still, she ran the 400 meter faster than she had all season: 62.8 seconds. She just had to wait five days to find out if that was fast enough.
“The wait was so stressful,” Aravich says. “You know you can’t do anything to change the result, but you’re still reevaluating every inch of your race and thinking about places you should have run faster.”
By the time she sat down in a friend’s apartment and logged onto the Zoom call where they would announce the team, she felt dazed from the nerves. The call would be recorded and televised, so the host asked the runners to turn on their cameras and capture the moment. Aravich kept her camera turned off.
“I was thinking, ‘You don’t want to see my reaction if I don’t make it,’” she recalls, laughing.
They read the list in alphabetical order.
“…Cassie, Chelsea, Cheri…”
Dani Aravich looked to her friend. “‘D’ comes after ‘C,’ right?”
She was so nervous she barely heard them call her name. But she immediately received texts of congratulations, and her friend—a Nordic skiing teammate—nodded in confirmation. Aravich attended the first official U.S. Paralympic Track and Field team meeting later that day.
The Summer Games begin with opening ceremonies on August 24. Leading up to her first Paralympic sprint, Aravich will spend two weeks training with her team on a military base near Tokyo. She’s been running solo for most of the summer, so she’s excited to head to Japan and hit the track with Team USA.
Dani Aravich will compete in the women’s 400-meter sprint at the Summer Paralympics, August 27 at 9:25 PM JST / 8:25 AM EDT. If she makes the finals, Aravich will compete again on August 28 (JST). You can watch the Paralympics on NBC.
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