Para-cycling: the road to Rio for four women from Team USA
“Until I see my name in black and white on the list, I’m not going to Rio. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Those are the words of Jamie Whitmore, 2015 UCI World Champion in the para-cycling time trial. Over the last few years she has won several para-cycling world titles but never competed at the Paralympics. She is leaving no stone unturned in her quest to make the US team for Rio 2016.
Whitmore is one of four American women who spent nearly two weeks of November training at the UCI World Cycling Centre’s second para-cycling training camp of the year in Aigle, Switzerland.
“I don’t live near a track in the States. In fact this is only the fourth velodrome I’ve ridden in my life so it is fantastic to have these facilities to train on,” says the talented former professional triathlete and Xterra (off-road) Triathlon World Champion. Diagnosed with cancer of the leg in 2008, Whitmore fought for her life and survived, albeit minus her left gluteus, leaving her not just without muscle, but without a sciatic nerve and without full facility of her left foot.
Since then, running has been out of the question, but she is fast making a name for herself in the world of para-cycling. Her desire to compete in the Paralympics means making plenty of sacrifices, including long periods away from her husband and young twin boys. But as she points out: “I think when you sacrifice so much, it makes it all the more meaningful.
"I could never live with having to say to myself ‘what if I’d done this or that?’”
To make the USA team, the women need to be all-round athletes who can perform on the road and the track. No problem for this athlete who has won world titles on both in the C3 sports class. “I like the variety,” she laughs. “For Rio we are more or less expected to do both, although obviously someone who is a specialist in the 500m time trial on the track is going to be less competitive on the road.”
“They ask us to do it all,” adds her team-mate Megan Fisher, a C4 athlete. “That just goes to show what fit, all-round athletes we are!”
Fisher lost her foot in a car accident in 2002 and has since won multiple UCI World Championship titles as well as gold (individual time trial) and silver (individual pursuit) at the London 2012 Paralympics. She dearly wants to repeat the Paralympic experience and is juggling training with her full-time job as a physical therapist.
“It’s difficult because you put so much of your life on hold."
Some team members even uproot their families and give up their jobs to move to Colorado Springs or Boulder to train. You put so much on the line. But the more races we do and do well, the more chances we have of getting a spot.”
Although these women are competing to earn the right to race in Rio, they remain very much a team.
“We are always aware that we are competing for a spot, but we want our team mates to do well and we are always there for them,” says Shawn Morelli (C4), a US Army veteran who was injured in Afghanistan in 2007. In 2014 she was crowned UCI Para-cycling Road World Champion and winner of the 2014 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup. This year she successfully defended her road world title, and also won two medals at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships.
While she would very much like to repeat these successes next year, her main aim is Rio 2016, and that means USA’s selection events for track in February and road in July.
Jennifer Schuble (C5), who suffered two traumatic brain injuries in two separate accidents and was then diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, is probably the most experienced of the four Americans who took part in the UCI WCC training camp. She already has five Paralympic medals to her name, including one gold, from Beijing 2008 and London 2012. After the training camp, she left Europe earlier than her team-mates to get back to her full time job as an engineer for Mercedes Benz.
Indeed, all these Elite athletes lead incredibly full lives outside their sport. They are high achievers and all were involved in college sports – tennis, soccer, athletics - before their accidents.
That sporting culture in schools is one of the reasons, according to Whitmore, that the USA’s para-cycling team is so strong: “Our country puts so much into women’s sport and nurtures children from a young age,” she says.
Rising level of para-cycling worldwide
Despite the strength of the USA women’s team, which is ranked the best in the world, its athletes face increasingly stiff competition from other nations on the international circuit. The level of racing has undeniably increased all over the world, and continues to do so.
The two para-cycling training camps organised at the UCI World Cycling Centre this year were in high demand with around half of the applicants having to be turned down for the November camp due to a limited number of places.
Ian Lawless, US Paralympics’ Cycling High Performance Director, jumped at the chance to send some of his athletes: “Track competition in para-cycling is getting fiercer every year. The coaching staff at the UCI World Cycling Centre, led by Frédéric Magné, is considered the world’s best. We felt our athletes could learn new ideas at the camp, particularly from coaches they don’t normally work with who may have fresh perspective on their strengths and weaknesses. In addition, it’s a great opportunity to get track time at a world class facility before the para-cycling track season gets fully underway.”