In 1989, when a 6-year-old from Orange Park, Fla., made her Junior National debut, organizers wondered if they were witnessing the future of disability sports. Within four years, that girl was dominating the Junior Nationals. Last year, at 13, she became the youngest U.S. track athlete in Olympic and Paralympic history, and the youngest in any sport to win a gold medal.

LeAnn Shannon

LeAnn Shannon

Today, Shannon is challenging racers twice her age on their own turf, but her athletic career had an inauspicious beginning. Nine years ago, LeAnn’s parents, Ann and Lee Shannon, drove to a wheelchair sports meet with their 5-year-old daughter and a homemade racing chair. “We had never seen a racer,” recalls Ann. At those Orlando games, Shannon swam, raced and threw softball and club-kid field events. She also tried a three-wheel chair, a design that was not yet sanctioned for racing. “She loved it,” Ann says. “But she hadn’t learned to lean forward yet and she kept flipping the chair backwards. So we weighed down the front end by tying a bag of tools to her chair, and she raced around the trac