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Marine Vet Zach Stinson Overcame A Challenging Sick Day At World Championships

by Paul D. Bowker

Zach Stinson competes at the 2023 UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships. (Photo by Casey Gibson/USOPC)

Handcyclist Zach Stinson couldn’t remember sweating so much.


Practically jumping out of a sick bed to compete in his first race at last month’s cycling world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, the Marine Corps veteran couldn’t cool down his body.


His heart rate spiked at 170 beats per minute.


He can’t remember how high his temperature went.


“I probably sweated out half a pound of water weight,” Stinson said.


A non-COVID illness had grabbed hold of his body.


Even U.S. teammate Travis Gaertner, Stinson’s roommate, took notice and called for a team doctor.


Still, Stinson somehow completed both the time trial and road race MH4 races in Scotland. The achievement was remarkable itself, although the 13th- and 20th-place finishes did not sit well with the Pennsylvania native. He had finished 11th in both events in his first world cup final in May in Huntsville, Alabama.


“Worlds was the worst competition I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “A complete failure.”


Clearly, that is a part of his motivation in his determination to make the U.S. team for the Paralympic Games next year in Paris. Stinson is, after all, a two-time Boston Marathon handcycling champion (2021 and 2023) and a triathlete who finished eighth in the 2022 world championships in Abu Dhabi and second in the 2023 Americas championships in Sarasota, Florida.


“I’d like to make a run at all (2024) world cups, plus the selection event for Paris,” Stinson said.


Two days after the grueling time trial in Glasgow, Stinson recovered in time for the road race. But he struggled. Stinson finished more than 29 minutes behind gold medalist Jonas Van de Steene of Belgium.


“It was horrible,” Stinson said. “I’ve never wanted to quit a race before, but after the second lap, I was like, ‘Why am I even doing this?’ I had nothing. I could not hold on to anybody. Forget about being in front of everybody and then just kind of grabbing on and holding on. I couldn’t even be at the back of the pack just trying to stay alive. It was horrible.”


So what happened after that?


Stinson, a father to 8-year-old Rylee and 12-year-old Olivia, went home to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and climbed into his racing bike in a moment of self-truth.


“It’s silly because I knew I was better than that anyway,” he said. “It was literally just putting numbers in front of me just to be like, ‘Look, yes, I know I can do this.’ That was where I was at.”


Although Stinson made his international debut in triathlon in 2021, he was on a bike within two years after suffering his military injury in November 2010, when he stepped on an IED while on duty in Afghanistan. His first cycling event was the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012, an event he will compete again on Oct. 29 in Washington D.C. as a member of the Achilles International team comprised of military veterans.


“I actually did so well people were like, ‘You should really start doing this,’” Stinson said.


But it scared him away, he said.


“I didn’t understand or didn’t know about bikes,” Stinson said. “The time trials and road race stuff in international competition. Even though I was racing with guys that were doing it, I didn’t understand or fully comprehend how that was all happening.”


He turned to an Ironman competition and then triathlon. Even if he didn’t know how to swim.


“I figured out how to do it,” Stinson said. “I survived.”


The circle of competition led him back to cycling in 2023, and his success was immediate. After competing in the world cup final in Huntsville, and getting internationally classified in H4, he chose to drive to Wisconsin and race in the U.S. Paralympics Cycling selection event that determined the roster spots for the world team.


“I didn’t really have any big plans,” Stinson said. “I was just like, ‘OK, I’m just going to do the time trial.’


“I did really well in Wisconsin and I got selected for worlds.”


Selection day in Wisconsin led to a sick day in Scotland, but it also fed Stinson’s passion.


“It might be just the speed,” he said. “I like going fast now. That very well could be it. It’s just fun. I get into my head a little bit. I solve all the world’s problems while I’m out there. It’s a good thing for me.”


Stinson plans to race in the Oct. 15 Detroit Marathon on the same day that his wife, Tesa, runs her first marathon. He is working with a coach, Simon Bennett of APEX Coaching & Consulting. And the focus now is completely on cycling.


“This has been the first year where I’ve actually been able to kind of focus on cycling with working with a coach,” Stinson said. “I’ve never done that since I started working with a coach back in 2019. It’s always been triathlon, and then we’ll do a few cycling events. So whenever I cut out the swimming and the wheelchair work, my cycling, I’ve made some dramatic improvements.”


“I just figure God has a plan for it and I’m here for a reason,” he added. “We’ll just keep pushing.”


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.

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