Before January 6, 25-year-old Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was known for being the youngest member of Congress, an ardent Trump supporter, and one of the few wheelchair users in elected office. Now he is in the headlines for giving a speech at the “Stop the Steal” rally prior to the insurrection at the Capitol that left five people dead. Throughout his short but meteoric political career, Cawthorn has used his disability to tell a story of overcoming: Despite great adversity, he claims to have achieved excellence through grit and physical strength. Many of his campaign ads featured images of Cawthorn intubated and hospitalized alongside videos of him lifting weights and hurtling forward in a racing wheelchair. But his claims of sporting success—like his accounts of education and business acumen—have often been misleading.
Cawthorn became disabled after a 2014 car crash left him paralyzed from the waist down. By Cawthorn’s own telling, he was a successful business owner headed to the Naval Academy before his injury tragically reordered his life. As it turns out, neither claim is true. The Asheville Watchdog reported that Cawthorn had already been rejected from the Naval Academy before his accident. And Cawthorn’s real-estate investment firm, SPQR Holdings LLC, which he only formed in August 2019, reported no income on its tax documents, and Cawthorn was the sole employee.
But he has not only styled himself as Naval Academy material with a head for real estate. Multiple outlets reported that before he ran for office, Cawthorn was training for the 2020 Paralympic Games. There is little detail, but according to Micah Bock, Cawthorn’s campaign communications director, he intended to compete in the 400-meter dash at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. It would have been an incredible footnote in a politician’s biography: Paralympians are celebrated and accomplished athletes. But his hopes for the Paralympic Games, now slated for summer 2021, were allegedly dashed by his worsening disability.
Cawthorn frequently said on social media that he was “training” for the Paralympic Games. Technically, such a statement could be true—but only in the sense that I could be training for the Olympic Games. “It’s like a kid saying they want to play in the NBA when they’re on their fourth-grade basketball team,” said Amanda McGrory, a three-time Paralympian who has earned seven medals in track and field. Cawthorn stated on the Christian inspirational podcast The Heal, “I had an opportunity for the Paralympics for track and field.” He did not have that opportunity, nor does it appear he took any meaningful steps that would have led him there.
Paralympians are the best at what they do. Qualifying is a long, complicated process. In addition to being a Paralympian, McGrory is the archivist and collections curator for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She told me: “You have to be involved in a team, usually your college or a local club. And then from there, you establish times at qualifying races, and then from there you get scouted.” Patrick Henry College, which Cawthorn attended for a semester before dropping out, doesn’t have a disabled sports program.
In addition to not being on a team, Cawthorn does not appear to have competed in any qualifying races. Robert Kozarek, a former elite wheelchair marathoner, said he would have met Cawthorn at some point if he had been serious competition. Kozarek himself never qualified for the Paralympic Games. “The community itself is small. There’s probably 50 [elite wheelchair racers] in the entire country, and we see each other four, five, six times a year, at least.”
In addition to being on a team and establishing times at qualifying races, prospective Paralympians need to be internationally classified. “The International Paralympic Committee, the IPC, they have a registry of athletes. You have to be on it to even compete internationally,” McGrory explained. People on the list are evaluated for severity of disability and sorted accordingly, in an attempt to make athletic competitions between people with different disabilities fairer. The list is publicly available, and contains over 4,000 athletes from around the world. Cawthorn isn’t on it.
Brian Siemann, however, is on the list. He represented Team USA in track and field in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games. “I’m still training for 2021,” Siemann told me during our interview. Siemann like Cawthorn, uses a wheelchair. He is passionate about athletic competition for disabled people. “I truly believe in the power of sports in helping people realize that even though you have a disability, you are capable, and there are opportunities and outlets for you.… I never want to make someone feel like it’s impossible.”
But what Cawthorn said on social media about his Paralympic training was often impossible, according to Siemann, McGrory, and multiple other former and current Paralympians. For example, in one post from May 2019, Cawthorn uses the hashtag “qualifiers.” In another post from February 2019, Cawthorn mentions that he is going to the “US Open” in June. But McGrory told me, “There were no qualifying meets in 2019.” Both she and Siemann had no idea what the “US Open” in Cawthorn’s post could possibly refer to.
McGrory remembered the first video she saw in which Cawthorn claims he is going to break the world record for the 100-meter dash while using what is, essentially, a wheelchair treadmill. He says to the camera while panting through his exercises, “Thirteen point seven six. To most of you it’s just a number. But for me, it’s all I can think about. Thirteen point seven six seconds is the world record for the 100-meter dash. So in Tokyo, August 2020, that world record’s going down.” McGrory recalled what she’d thought at the time: “Who is this guy? Why does he think he’s going to break world records? This is really weird. I don’t think he has any idea what he’s talking about.”
Siemann admitted, a little sheepishly, that he and other elite athletes were aware of Cawthorn long before he ran for office. In fact, Cawthorn’s Instagram feed was a bit of a running joke. “[My teammates and I] would share whatever posts [Cawthorn] put up and be like, ‘Look at what batshit thing he said about the Paralympics this week.… The claims he was making were just so absurd, you have to find some humor in it.”
There is one real, identifiable race Cawthorn namedrops on Instagram: The Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, which he described as “the biggest 10K in the world, which I anticipated to win.” It does bill itself as the world’s largest 10K, but Cawthorn was not likely to win. Multiple elite racers were slated to compete, including Daniel Romanchuk, who holds the world record for fastest wheelchair marathon in history. According to Siemann, Romanchuk is “arguably the fastest man in the world.”
Despite attracting elite racers, Peachtree is a relaxed affair, and is in no way qualifying for the US Paralympic Games. “It’s a turkey trot kind of thing,” explained Siemann, who has raced Peachtree multiple times. “People get up in the morning, you run your contest, and then it’s the Fourth of July. There’s no qualifications. If you want to sign up, you can sign up.”
The Peachtree Road Race is significant, because the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, partners with the race to coordinate the logistics for the wheelchair division. The Shepherd Center primarily supports people with newly acquired spinal cord injuries, some of whom have gone on to become Paralympians. “People essentially learn the basics of how to be a person with a disability [at the Shepherd Center],” Siemann told me.
Halfway through the Peachtree Road Race, after what Siemann called “Cardiac Hill,” the route passes the Shepherd Center. “What’s really cool is [Shepherd Center staff] bring a bunch of younger patients to cheer you on. It’s a great opportunity for them to see what’s possible if you work hard and train,” Siemann said.
Multiple athletes expressed frustration, not just with Cawthorn but with the general ignorance of disability and athletics. If Cawthorn had claimed to be preparing for the 400 meters in the Summer Olympics, the press would have ridiculed him, but no one in media questioned his claims of training for the Paralympics. “There is such a lack of awareness about the Paralympic Movement,” Siemann said. “[People] don’t understand the time and effort and energy that Paralympic athletes put in their training. It’s an elite sport. You can’t just get in a racing chair. That’s really not how it works.”
Correction: The article has been changed to reflect that the Peachtree Road Race does claim to be the largest 10K in the world.