History in the making: Noelle Malkamaki becomes DePaul’s first Paralympic athlete
September 25, 2022
A young Noelle Malkamaki sits down with her dad to watch ESPN on the TV. Running across the screen is Shaquem Griffin, a former linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, who has amniotic band syndrome, just like Malkamaki.
“I remember the first time I saw him I was totally shocked, like, ‘Oh my gosh, people who look like me are doing big things too,” Malkamaki said.
Ending her junior year strong as a DePaul thrower, Malkamaki’s track and field coach reached out about beginning a career in Paralympics. Malkamaki is now the first Paralympic Athlete at DePaul.
“He asked me, ‘Hey, have you ever considered Paralympics?’ And right off the bat I just said no, because I genuinely never thought I competed with able-bodied athletes my entire life,” Malkamaki said. “And so I guess to an extent, I never embraced my identity as disabled athlete.”
Now, starting off her senior year, Malkamaki comes back with a national title in Shot Put for the U.S Paralympic national championship. Malkamaki begins her training for the Paris 2024 Paralympics while balancing track and field and school at DePaul.
Malkamaki didn’t always have Olympic aspirations. 13-year-old Malkamaki played other sports beforehand, but started her middle school track and field team to support a friend.
“There was a girl that transferred to my school that was really good at track but didn’t want to join alone,” Malkamaki said. “So she and I were kind of like if you do it, I’ll do it. And we both joined the team.I only chose throwing because I knew I didn’t want to be a runner.”
From there, Malkamaki continued her career through high school and began her journey as an athlete.
“I was kind of good without necessarily meaning to be if that makes sense, which is the huge difference between high school and colleges, with high school it’s a small pool of people and once you get to college, it becomes real,” Malkamaki said. “I never necessarily expected to go to college for sports. My dad was the first to bring it up my sophomore year and I just never thought that that was a route that I would be able to take until it’s slowly happening. I just didn’t think I was one of those people.”
From small town Decauter to big city Chicago, Malkamaki chose DePaul after a phone call with the assistant track and field coach, Brandon Murer.
“Recruiting is normally just based on numbers on a list, but we want to see who you are besides athletics. And Noelle already passed the number test, but is she going to be a good fit for the program?” Murer said. “So you pick up the phone and you start talking to the people and seeing who they really are. And so a lot of what I did hear with Noelle through the phone was passion for the sport and the people, and you can see that developing throughout the years as she’s stepping into more leadership roles.”
Murer didn’t know prior to their conversation that Malkakmaki had amniotic band syndrome.
“Her score reflected a top athlete and when I picked up the phone the first time I talked to her, I had no idea. I hadn’t been to a meet to see her, I just saw the numbers as black and white numbers and I was like, ‘Oh, this is somebody that can really shoot’,” Murer said. “There was no there’s no dissuading me from wanting her here. Being a paralympic athlete in Division I, in any division, is fairly uncommon, so we feel very special and privileged to be coaching her right now.”
At DePaul, Malkamaki continued to grow and inspired the team to championships. Billie Martin, a friend and fellow DePaul athlete, tells the DePaulia the connection between her and Malkamaki helped get through the difficult early Covid-19 years for the team.
“Noelle brings so much enthusiasm and positivity to the group that helps us become not only better athletes, but I also think better people,” Martin said. “For me personally, seeing Noelle reach her goals and push herself makes me want to do the same and I am sure our other teammates feel the same way.’
Malkamaki has had many accomplishments over her career, such as finishing fifth at the Big East Triangular with a distance of 14.73m on Feb. 26, 2021, her personal best. She also finished fourth and set a personal record in the shot put at Marquette Invitational with a throw of 12.31m, along with finishing fifth in the discus at the Big East Outdoor Championship with a throw of 41.66m.
“When you talk to able-bodied versus Paralympic, we know how hard it is to do what we’re doing and she’s doing it with a disadvantage. Whether she thinks it is or not, she is and so there’s a little bit of I’m not going to complain, I’m just going to do this within the team that I think really brings a positive environment,” Murer said.
Outside of throwing, Noelle lives a full life after recently marrying her highschool sweetheart, Robert Malkamai, and pursuing her major in English while working at the DePaul Writing Center.
“I would love to be a writer one day,” she said. “Whether I’m writing for internal communications at a business or I’m literally writing books, I would love to use that as a career. My husband and I both support each other so much in our goals and while being a Paralympic Athlete wasn’t what I had planned as my future when we got married he is very proud and supportive of this different route.”
Even with the future goal of being a writer, Malkamaki doesn’t want to stop her career with throwing anytime soon.
“You think your athletic career is going to end in high school and then if it doesn’t, it’s amazing that I get to continue through college and then it’ll be done. So the fact that I am looking into continuing past college and even past Paris 2024 is all new territory for me,” Malkamaki said. “I’ve had conversations with myself personally like, okay I’m going to be completely all in on this for the next two years and then see where it takes me from there because this environment of being in this community of disabled athletes that I kind of didn’t know existed is something I never want to leave.”