Hand-cycling for mental health: Stuart Tripp’s journey back from the brink
In his own words, Stuart Tripp went into last weekend’s Paracyling World Cup with “mixed feelings”. He’d ridden well at the Paracycling World Championships a few weeks earlier, finishing fifth in both the time trial and road race, but the 48-year-old Aussie wanted more.
He started the meet in perfect fashion, winning the H5 time trial by more than 10 seconds. Going into the road race, he knew that he had to finish first or second if he was going to win the World Cup series overall. He ended up winning the road race as well, taking out a four-up sprint to clinch the series overall.
Student journalist Lauren O’Keefe caught up with Tripp to find out about the hand-cyclist’s journey into the sport and how paracycling has given him much more than just medals and trophies.
There is a sinuous motion to Stuart Tripp’s pedalling style. It’s almost hypnotic. His torso sweeps back and forth smoothly as his arms move in perfect harmony to turn the pedals of his hand-cycle.
Melbourne cyclists would have seen Tripp out and about in his Bastion Cycles-made machine. He is a regular on Yarra Boulevard in Kew, can be spied on Beach Road, and occasionally on the roads around Bright. He trains with the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) and has a team of coaches monitoring all aspects of his progress as he works towards the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Tripp’s journey to becoming a Paralympian began in 1994 when he was in a horrific car accident in rural Victoria. The accident left him comatose for several weeks, with kidney failure and significant crush injuries to both of his legs, including a compound fracture that tore through his right calf. His right leg was amputated below the knee when the wound developed a staph infection which didn’t respond to antibiotics. He was also left with serious nerve damage to his left leg.
After a four-and-a-half month stay at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, he moved to the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Hospital to learn how to live with a prosthetic leg.
“I’d never injured myself like that before and with no frame of reference to fall back on, I said why don’t you just get back on with life again … just jump back into life,” Tripp said.
But five years after the accident, Tripp was a mess. The accident had changed his life and he struggled to find direction, feeling like he was failing at everything. He was drinking too much, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and he weighed 115kg. One of the friends he met during rehab died and another was dying.
Tripp freely admits he was suicidal. “I knew exactly where it was going to happen, I knew how it was going to happen and all I was waiting for was what was going to tip me over to do that.”
Tripp’s family and friends were extremely concerned and tried to intervene, but with little success. Finally, Tripp’s mum took control and made an appointment for him to see a psychologist. He went along, and by the end of the session he was in tears, asking if the therapist could help him. Thankfully, the therapist said he could.
Early on in treatment, Tripp’s therapist suggested he should take up some form of exercise. With some prompting from a friend, he tried swimming and within a few months, he could swim 30 laps in an hour. But he found the repetitive up-and-down of lap swimming boring so he started to think about what else he could do. In 2003, he found a hand-cycle and tried it out.
“I got my hands on the grips and I remember turning the crank over for the first time,” he said. “I just went ‘Oh, how much anger and frustration and aggression am I going to get out on this?!’”
The arrival of the hand-cycle coincided with Tripp being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For him, it was clear choice between taking medication or exercising to manage his mental health. He choose the bike and began seeing a psychologist who specialised in PTSD.
Tripp stuck with his therapy and worked though the psychological trauma the accident had caused. He kept riding his hand-cycle and joined the St Kilda Cycling Club after deciding that if he was going to ride, he was going to be good at it. Cycling helped Tripp find a sense of normality. It filled a void that developed when he had to give up his chosen profession of wool grading.
“It filled something that I was missing greatly in my life,” he explained. “When you have a traumatic accident and you can’t go back to what you were previously doing, you miss the camaraderie between you and your workplace. When I found cycling, that void was filled by the cycling community.
“There’s not a ride I go on that I don’t catch up with somebody — I will talk to somebody that I know in the cycling community in Melbourne. That for me was what I was greatly missing in my life after that accident.”
Tripp thoroughly embraced cycling and rode whenever he could. One year he managed to ride 18,000 kilometres. In the weeks before racing at the London Paralympics in 2012, Tripp and his wife, Gill, went to France and rode five peaks in five days.
These days, Tripp rides less. He is focused on being a professional cyclist and achieving the best results he can when he races. Becoming a VIS scholarship holder has allowed him to refine his technique and build the physical strength to be one of the best para-cyclists in the world. He is currently in the top five of the UCI H5 road paracycling rankings.
The ultimate goal, of course, is the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. At the last Paralympics, in Rio, he came within 2.74 seconds of Alessandro Zanardi’s winning time and had to settle for silver. In 2020, he’s very much dreaming of gold.
About the author
After two Arts degrees and 17 years spent working in web design and publishing, Lauren O’Keefe decided to follow her dreams and study journalism. She is currently completing a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at RMIT University in Melbourne. She is a keen recreational cyclist. You can read more of Lauren’s work at her website or follow her via Twitter.