Marta Scechura Plays Many Roles As A Dietitian For U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team
by Paul D. Bowker
The feed zone is an underrated, yet integral, part of any major cycling event.
That’s where you’ll find Marta Scechura, a dietitian for U.S. Paralympics Cycling, chasing her athletes around.
World cup and world championships races include feed zones for athletes where water, snacks and other refreshments are provided while the race is ongoing. Think of it as a NASCAR pit stop — except the car doesn’t stop, and the pit crew is just one person.
“They actually keep moving,” Scechura said. “So it’s my job to be able to get them while they’re moving.”
During road races, the feed zones are designated places where Scechura and support staff from other countries can provide cyclists with “quick carbohydrates and fluids,” she said.
Track cycling races are set up differently because they are shorter distances at one venue, allowing for nutrition breaks before and after races.
If you think a dietitian’s life is quiet, think again. On race day athletes grab for replenishment in an action-packed bottle swap that involves a cyclist grabbing a bottle and throwing it on the ground when finished, while support staff, or Scechura, chase it down.
“They throw their old bottle out and I hand them a bottle that they replenish on their bike,” Scechura said. “Sometimes it’s a splash zone because there’s a lot happening.”
Scechura and Sally Baumann, an Australian native who joined Team USA as a dietitian in 2019, combine to serve multiple Para sports for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Scechura, a native of Poland who immigrated to the Chicago area, works with the U.S. Para Nordic, Para swimming and wheelchair basketball teams in addition to Para-cycling.
Their functions include helping athletes at event venues, working with the national teams and national governing bodies during training camps and meeting one-on-one with athletes and coaches to determine nutritional needs and write complex meal and training plans.
“At this level, the margin is very small,” Scechura said. “Nutrition is such a huge component of overall health performance and recovery, so having that area dialed in is very important. It has to be very consistent.”
“Marta is the secret weapon of the team,” said Freddie De Los Santos, a two-time Paralympian. “She’s amazing. We are so blessed to have Marta as part of the team. … She knows what I need in order to be able to get back the energy that I need.”
Before joining Team USA in February 2021, Scechura was director of sports nutrition at the University of Notre Dame and was the lead dietitian for the Chicago Cubs’ minor league teams. Paralympic sports helped her learn even more about her profession.
Scechura said she may be trying to help an athlete who has a spinal cord injury and another who has diabetes.
The conditions of the races themselves, and the multiple athlete classifications, also present challenges.
“Depending on the length of the race, depending if they’re upright or they’re in a handcycle or tri, those factors change,” she said. “It is based so individually on their impairment, on the length of a race, if it’s hot, if it’s not.
“Some of our (athletes with) spinal cord injuries will not sweat, so if we’re in a bike race where it’s hot and there is a heat stress factor and they’re unable to thermally regulate, looking at it from how do we help to manage that? (We) cool them internally by including things like slushies or any type of cold-cooling fluid to help regulate the core temp, as well as external cooling. So using ice vests or ice water, those types of things.”
Tough situations like those are all part of the challenges on the road in another country, and far away from the conveniences of life in the U.S.
“In competition, things look a little bit different,” Scechura said. “Ahead of time, really getting engaged and a pulse on what we’re walking into from a nutrition landscape. Where is the venue? How far away is it located from where the team is staying? Where are meals going to be provided?”
There are conversations with hotel staff and chefs. Piles of the right kind of food and drinks are built up and prepared.
“I’m not necessarily writing the menu, the chef would be, but I definitely have performance fueling templates that we want to stick to and have certain foods available for the athletes,” Scechura said.
For De Los Santos, beet juice is one key to his personal nutrition.
“I drink a lot of beet juice and (eat) a lot of spinach,” De Los Santos said. “So when I’m there, (Scechura) is like, ‘OK, Freddie, what do you need?’
“Marta, I need beet juice, I need spinach.”
“I don’t know where,” De Los Santos said. “She will come back with a lot of beet juice and spinach.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.