I am a Paralympian. There, got the hard part out, now maybe after a month of trying to find the words, I can finally sit down and write about one of the most unique and exclusive experiences in all of sport.
You might be wondering how we made the team, Aaron* and I, especially if you read my prior post about Aaron and I running across the line at the Charlotte Paralympic Cycling Trials. Well, in August the Russian Paralympic Team was banned from competing in the Rio Paralympic Games due to widespread, state-sponsored doping among their athletes. The ethics of banning an individual athlete because of their country of birth is a discussion for another post (I support lifetime bans and financial punishment to governing bodies, but tend to shy away from punishment by association), but what this meant for me and Aaron is that we went from alternates to the US Paralympic Team to members of the team in just a few short hours.
We were added to the team in late August, and a few days later we joined the rest of the US Paralympic Cycling Team in Oxnard, California for a training camp. It was a great week in California, though when I look back through my journal my notes on the week show that it was pretty focused, without much energy left to be excited:
Monday: Arrived late last night and struggled to keep a conversation going with Coach Creed , worried he’d fall asleep if I didn’t keep talking. Ride this morning was good, we got two flats and had to be picked up.
Tuesday: Practice TT boosted confidence. Rode under standard with hills and strong wind. Found a nice canyon to ride up on the way home.
Wednesday: Did 4×15’ on the PCH. Holy crap this bike goes fast.
….you get the idea.
— Aaron Scheidies (@AaronScheidies) September 24, 2016
Come Sunday the team packed up to fly to Houston, where we would get over 70 items of clothing from Nike and Ralph Lauren, plus a bunch of other goodies from the US Olympic and Paralympic Team Sponsors. They call it processing, but it’s more like a boutique shopping experience without a cash register.
Processing took an entire day, and we spent that night on a flight to Rio.
There were probably 50+ wheelchairs on our flight, which added lots of time to our travel days, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the accommodation the team had from United, Homeland Security and (I can’t believe I’m saying something positive about them) TSA. Our flights were all on time, and the heaps of luggage and equipment all made it with us.
So let the games begin!!!!
Once we got to the village the trip took a turn toward monotony. I think the best way to describe my two weeks in the village is like watching an EKG readout. There were long periods of dull and boring with small moments of extremely fun/exciting/scary/etc.
For the most part the media portrayal of the village as a dilapidated, unfinished construction project were overblown. I did see wires hanging from walls and ceilings, there were clearly finishes on the inside of buildings that were unfinished. We had outlets that didn’t work, questionable plumbing, and doors that needed repair more than once. One day there was a fire in our building that started in the fire control panel. That said, these are buildings that were built to be luxury condos, that had to house a bunch of athletes first. The finishes were meant to be temporary because when they redo the insides of the building for the future residents, they don’t need 1,000 handicap accessible bathrooms, and the residents will probably want things like kitchens.
We were in the village for a week before we finally raced. I tried to make the most of that time. I previewed the road course, I got my daily massage, used Normatec, binge watched Netflix, and managed to see a couple of competitions at the Olympic Park. Most notably, Aaron and I went to watch Dartanyan Crockett win Bronze in Judo.
When race day finally arrived, it was the Time Trial first. Even after a month it’s still hard to write about this one, as it was really hard to accept our 12th place finish. I always preach not to have expectations, but 12th place was not even on the spectrum of outcomes I had prepared for.
We were the last race of the day, and the Brazilian sun was right over head when we arrived to the venue. The night before I had sweated through my sheets, tossing and turning in a nervous delirium. When I woke up I had a clear vision of our chain needing fixing. The previous day we had somehow knocked the chain off the front chain ring during an interval, and I had gotten into an argument with the mechanics over the solution. So that morning I arrived to the venue with a front derailleur to act as a chain guide. We put it on and took the bike out for a quick test, and when we put energy into the pedals we broke the chain. 10 minutes later with a new chain we tested it again and the bike seemed to feel better than it ever has. Perhaps a new SRAM chain is all the bike really needed.
The good thing about my nervous freak-out is that we broke the chain before the race rather than during. The bad thing is that all the last minute changes meant that our warm-up was delayed. This was not a big deal for me, as I had my own bike to warm up on, but due to limited space to bring equipment to the race venue from the village, Aaron was forced to warm up on the race bike. Further, the pits at the venue were too small for the entire team to warm up near the start, and the later starting bikes (like us) were forced into a satellite pit that was not at all convenient to the race start. We had to send the bike over for final check 35 minutes before race start, so Aaron’s warm-up ended really early.
We got onto the course and settled into a pace. After about a minute, however, Aaron asked for a higher cadence. This was a shock to me. In nine years of riding with Aaron, I have never preferred a lower cadence than him. I obliged and shifted, but the bike felt like it settled a bit, and my perception was that we slowed just a hair.
Still, I was riding pretty well. My power was in range, and though I could tell Aaron was uncomfortable I felt him getting stronger through the first lap as his legs warmed up.
Toward the end of the first lap we were passed by the British team that started 60 seconds behind us. It took all the mindful training I’ve ever done to ignore this, as I had thought this course favored Aaron and me over them. To be down 60 seconds, in a race that is normally decided by seconds, was a very bad sign, but I didn’t have more to give.
Starting the second lap the disconnect between Aaron and me, along with the heat, started to take a toll. My power average dropped significantly. I felt myself overheating and I had to focus hard to keep my legs in sync with my stoker – who was finally warmed up and pedaling like a man on a mission.
We were passed by the Dutch team shortly after starting the second lap, but kept them in our sites for a long time. The other teams on the course didn’t seem to be getting closer or farther away, and I was hoping that there might still be a chance for the third position. We crossed the line and collapsed onto the side of the road, barely able to hold the bike up from the effort we had put in. We were 12th place. About 30 seconds from 5th, but almost two minutes behind the British Team, who won Gold ahead of the Dutch Team (silver).
That night Aaron went to spend time with his family. We were both bummed and needed some time apart. I ran for an hour around the village, driven by frustrated energy. I had cried after the race, feeling like I let Aaron down, and eventually those tears turned to anger and sadness, and all the stages of grief, expedited by some pavement pounding tempo around the athlete village. Then I grabbed an Uber and met a friend for Brazilian food and to get away from the monotony of the village and the athlete dining hall. I needed a break from the constant reminders that I didn’t win a medal. (Seriously, even the condom machines in the village are plastered with “celebrate the win” and images of medals.)
The road race was two days later. This one I felt prepared for, as by the time we got to the race I had already ridden the extremely technical course seven times. It started with four laps of the 15km time trial course, then led us to the same 30km Grumari Loop that was used during the Olympics. The entire race was 120km, but the Grumari loop is where all the action was going to happen. There were several climbs, but the two main features of the loop were the nasty switchback incline which was followed immediately by a deadly, tandem-hating descent involving 15% grade straight always into off-camber switchbacks. That course led to crashes in the Olympics, but imagine trying to stop a tandem on those same roads without any better brakes!
The race went well for us through the first portion. Nobody was dropped from the group during the first 60 kilometer flat section, but when we hit the first few hills we found ourselves staying with the stronger teams and the group started shrinking. Up that first gnarly climb we crested respectably in the lead pack, which turned into the breakaway group of five bikes. Descending that first hill I felt prepared. I had done it five times on my own and twice on the tandem. I knew the turns well and was confident in the risks I would put Aaron myself into.
We dropped down the first straight away and I braked hard to shed speed for the first turn. Same thing for the second, but going into the third hairpin the bike wouldn’t slow down. I was squeezing the brakes but the rear brake felt squishy and the bike wasn’t slowing.
“Aaron! The bike isn’t slowing, I don’t think we can turn it” I was frozen, I tried my best to get the bike to turn, but we veered too wide and rolled into a rain ditch on the side. We came to a halt, I fixed the chain, which had dropped during the impact, and we got back on. I took it a bit slower, but now the rear wheel was thumping and the bike was lurching up and down. The rear brake did nothing when I pulled on it and there was a squeal coming from the back.
“We must have a flat” I told Aaron, though it felt like no flat I had experienced.
We managed to get down the hill and rode soft until the follow cars were in site. We pulled over and waited for the US sag vehicle to catch up with a spare wheel, but when I pulled our rear wheel I found the tire was fine, perhaps a little rubbed, but still inflated. The rim of the wheel however was warped and splayed open, with no discernible braking surface left intact.
We had melted the carbon rim with the heat of our brake pads.
After changing the wheel we went into head-down time trial mode. This is something that has become a consistent part of road racing with Aaron. In South Africa we had a flat and had to catch the group. In Belgium we were dropped and rode solo between groups for 90 kilometers, and now this. I hate that we have never had a clean road race in the pack.
It took us a solid 20km, but right as we started the second Grumari loop we finally caught up to the chase pack of seven riders. From there we did our best to revive ourselves from the effort of catching on. We sat in, but rode hard up the hills hoping to drop the weaker teams. The group widdled down a bit, but by the end of the second lap we found ourselves with five other teams racing for sixth through 11th. This is where our triathlon skills really came out. Or rather where our triathlon adapted muscles shined in their inability to sprint. We emptied the tank, but every other team rode away from us as we sprinted for the line.
11th really isn’t much better than 12th. And when it comes to the Paralympics or Olympics, only the top three matter. But I’m still really proud of our 11th place finish. Probably more so than any of my individual performances in triathlon this year. It was an insanely hard race, where we overcame the most random and unpredictable mechanical. We proved to ourselves that we deserve to be at the big kid table – even if our bike doesn’t – and against teams that have been training specifically for this all summer, we proved that a couple of triathletes can give put up a pretty good fight.
And yeah, I went for a run later that night.
The one big part of the experience that I’ve left out are the opening and closing ceremonies. The ceremonies were probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in sport. Walking into the stadium to the roar of the crowd, walking with the US Paralympic Team… it was unbeatable.
As the time in Rio dragged on, it was the ceremonies when I was reminded just how special the Paralympics are. Every person there has a story, but that wasn’t the focus of the games. Instead it was a group of people who have said, “who cares” and has chosen to pursue their athletic potential anyway. Sitting around, hearing all the self-deprecating humor, getting to know the team on a personal level, it’s easy to forget that outside of the Paralympics this group is not normal. They’ve overcome obstacles that few of us will ever be forced to understand. I often felt unworthy of such company, and – as I alluded to in my opening statement – it’s hard for me to grasp that I have a place with the team. I’m not missing a limb, I haven’t been blown up in a war, or suffered anything like what my teammates have been through, but I am a Paralympian. I’m a Paralympian because Aaron trusted me to share his dream of finding his potential. It’s an honor.