The 2016 Rio Olympics may be done and dusted, but for some athletes, the excitement is only just about the start. International competition continues September 7th when the world’s best para-athletes take to the Rio venues for their chance at golden glory. Here is one paracyclist’s road to Rio.
I always wanted to be an Olympian. From a young age I would daydream about becoming the next Flo Jo or Bonnie Blair. Seriously, I didn’t care what sport. But I never imagined that one day I would be a Paralympian.
I grew up with a tennis racquet in my hand and would put it down only to play other sports like softball and basketball throughout high school. I didn’t discover cycling until after my accident. Shoot, cycling wasn’t even on my radar.
You see, I went to college to play tennis. Sure I went to study, too, because I wanted to be the next great wildlife biologist. But playing tennis in college was a dream come true… a dream that got cut short.
In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years my best friend and I were involved in a roll-over car accident. Our car rolled 8.5 times. I was the only survivor.
Mercifully, I don’t remember the accident at all due to a severe traumatic brain injury that left me in a coma and clinging on to life. I am left with many scars, but clothes hide most of them, except for one: my prosthetic leg.
Doctors weren’t sure what kind of person I would be when I woke up. Even after I woke up, doctors and professionals have tried to keep my expectations low. I will never forget when one medical professional sat me down and said “Sweetheart, you’ll never be as good as you were.”
I am proud to say that I am better than I ever I was.
Becoming a Paralympian
My story is probably not all that different from other athletes who acquire their impairments later in life. Since I was born able-bodied and participated in Olympic sports growing up, I never once considered the Paralympics. In fact, before my injury I would have had a hard time differentiating the Special Olympics from the Paralympics. Even in this modern age, I still meet people who assume the Paralympics and the Special Olympics are the same event.
To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’ll just quickly explain: The Paralympics showcase the athletic skills of individuals with physical impairments while the Special Olympics are for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
For many years, I didn’t think I even qualified for a Paralympic sport. I thought that since I wasn’t blind nor using a wheelchair, I wouldn’t be too able. It’s also possible that I was too afraid to admit my own limitations, but that’s a story for my therapist.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that I probably wasn’t alone in my simple assumptions of athletes with physical impairments. Like I thought that anyone who is blind has absolutely no vision or anyone who uses a wheelchair has absolutely no function in their lower extremities. Like I said, my assumptions were very simple and very far from the truth. And there are probably many people in this country and other countries that still think that way, too.
One of the tricky concepts in the Paralympics is the classification structure. You see, individuals are grouped into classifications based on their physical abilities, kind of like age-group categories in able-bodied sports. The goal is to make the playing field as fair as possible. If we think about cycling, it wouldn’t be fair to for a tandem bicycle team to race straight up against a single bike, right? Introducing and helping the general public become familiar with the concept of different physical impairment categories is kind of hard. But for those of us already involved in cycling it may not be that far of a stretch.
Oh, I could go on rambling about impairment categories and trying to explain each one, but this blog would get very long. Maybe that’s why people have trouble embracing paracycling, because it takes time and attention to understand. I am what they call a C4 or WC4 athlete, which is a category that includes athletes with cerebral palsy, amputations and other lower limb impairments.
My journey in cycling started in 2006, not long after I was told that I would never walk again.
Since walking became so hard, I was looking for an alternative tool to help me enjoy the outdoors under my own power. When I started biking, I did not immediately identify as a “paracyclist.” I wanted to just be a cyclist and I only wanted people to notice my missing leg after I passed them.
Like any cyclist, it took time to develop the strength and endurance to be successful in competition. In 2010 I joined the Paracycling Team, and over the years, I have won 10 World Championship titles, one Paralympic gold medal, and one Paralympic silver medal (both from the London 2012 Games). In September, I will be going to the Rio Paralympic Games with Team USA to defend my gold medal.
There are few words to describe what this all means to me. I keep searching for the right words and trying to remember to thank everyone who has helped me get this far. Through the skill of medical professionals and the support of countless people, I am getting to live my childhood dream of representing Team USA on the sport’s grandest stage. And you know what? I’m not disappointed that I’m not an Olympian. I’m more proud of being a Paralympian. That title is proof that I have had to overcome more than most to reach my dreams.
Where is the love?
Cycling has enriched my life beyond measure, as I’m sure you all have experienced in your own ways as well. As an elite para-athlete however I wish we could share our stories more often and inspire more people to challenge their own limitations. I truly believe we are all capable of more than we know.
Alas, a lot of the excitement, media attention, and support around the Olympics is not extended to the Paralympics.
In Europe, especially in Germany and Great Britain, Paralympians are attended to in much the same way as Olympians. Goodness, did you know that gold medal winners on Team GB are bestowed royal titles like “Sir”, “Dame” or “Knight” for winning a gold medal? While on the other end of the spectrum, there are countries that shame individuals with physical impairments and those athletes must overcome gigantic obstacles in order to represent their countries. But what about the US? Why hasn’t America’s relatively new obsession and passion for cycling extended to paracycling?
I don’t know.
I guess it all comes down to resources. It is well known that very few Olympians are able to support themselves on their athleticism alone. For Paralympians it’s practically unheard of, and the expenses are daunting.
No Olympian has ever had to buy a racing wheelchair, pay for a sighted guide to train and race with, or invest in new prosthetic legs or arms. The medical bills that Paralympians face are astonishing. Shoot, I just got a bill for $9,000 for a new leg just so I can walk around!
Sponsorship in cycling (especially women’s cycling) is hard to come by as it is, but it’s been encouraging to see more attention paid to these athletes by the media. Team Twenty16 and UnitedHealthcare, both UCI pro teams, have led the way by including elite paracyclists on their rosters.
We all know that coverage and publicity increases the potential for sponsorships. So my request of you is this: Tune in to the Paralympics this September. Clicks and views count, but more than anything, let us inspire you. I never dreamt of becoming a Paralympian, but I am extremely grateful that I have.