As Hailey Danisewicz soaked in the experience and atmosphere at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, her mind jumped to the moments in her life when competing on the world's largest stage seemed impossible.
The journey, years in the making, culminated with a silver medal in the PT2 class of paratriathlon on Sept. 11 for the 2009 graduate of Wauwatosa East High School.
"Words can't really describe it," Danisewicz said. "It was absolutely unbelievable. I didn't know what to expect, but it just exceeded all of my expectations."
Finding a passion
At the age of 12, Danisewicz was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer that begins in the bones. When chemotherapy and multiple surgeries failed, she had her left leg amputated when she was a freshman at Wauwatosa East.
Danisewicz was introduced to triathlon during an interview for an internship during her sophomore year at Northwestern University in February of 2011. In order to get the internship at the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association in Chicago, her potential boss required her to try a triathlon.
Hesitant at first because she hadn't competed in any of the three events of a triathlon, Danisewicz eventually got hooked.
"When I crossed my first finish line a few months later, I immediately fell in love," Danisewicz said. "I've been doing it ever since."
Danisewicz won a world championship at the 2013 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in London. She won three races in 2015, taking first place at the Sunshine Coast ITU World Paratriathlon, the Monterrey CAMTRI Triathlon American Championship and the Rio de Janeiro ITU World Paratriathlon.
Earning a medal
Paratriathlon, which includes a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike race and a 5-kilometer run, made its debut in the Paralympics at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
Danisewicz completed the swim in 13 minutes, 27 seconds, leaving her in fifth place.
"I had a great swim," Danisewicz said. "I came out of the water closer to the leaders than I ever have before. I was really happy with the swim I was able to put together."
The bike race is where Danisewicz earned her medal. She biked the 20 kilometers in 40 minutes, 13 seconds, which was two minutes, 35 seconds faster than any other competitor.
With the 5-kilometer race left, Danisewicz could sense the podium.
"I had an exceptional bike," Danisewicz said. "It was the fastest bike of my life. I was able to pass the entire field and create a pretty big lead going into the run, which was amazing. I was having so much fun on the bike. I knew I was having a great day."
But when she got off the bike, she suddenly realized how much of a toll going hard on the bike took on her. The question became whether or not she had enough strength left to hold off the competition.
Danisewicz completed the run in 26 minutes, 37 seconds.
She crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 23 minutes and 43 seconds to earn the silver medal.
"The run was hot," Danisewicz said. "I got off the bike knowing I had worked really, really hard. I think my legs kind of paid for it during the run. I gave the best effort I was able to give that day. It was by no means my best run ever. I really needed to create that gap on the bike in order to fend off my competitors.
"I executed the race I wanted to race by going really hard on the bike and seeing what happened on the run. I don't think there is anything I could have done differently. To me, it felt like gold just because I was so happy with the performance I was able to put together."
American athletes swept the medals, as Allysa Seely of Tempe, Arizona, won the gold medal in 1:22:55, and Melissa Stockwell of Grand Haven, Michigan, took bronze in 1:25:24.
"Of course everybody wants to win, but at the end of the day, what is more important is knowing you gave everything you had that day," Danisewicz said. "I was able to do that."
Returning to Chicago after the Paralympics, Danisewicz is enjoying a rare break from training and competition.
Her downtime won't last long, however, as the 25-year-old has her mind set on competing again at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
"I have not taken a break in two years," Danisewicz said. "I'm kind of just finishing up my period of doing whatever I want.
"I would like next year to be the year I have a little more fun. It might be a bit different than I typically do. But by 2018, it will be time to get serious again for Tokyo."