What Team USA Para-Cyclists Were Thankful For This Year
by Joanne C. Gerstner
Alicia Dana rides during the Women's Individual H 1-3 Road Race at the London 2012 Paralympic Games on Sept. 7, 2012 in Longfield, England.
It’s easy to get caught up in the staggering whirlwind of 2020 so far. History books will note the past 11 months as a world caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic, sports at all levels pausing or canceling events, economic turmoil and an American election that remains in the news.
But it’s also a great time to pause right now. Even if celebrating Thanksgiving was different this year, with smaller gatherings and Zoom and Facetiming friends and family as part of the day.
Many were reflecting on life, and counting blessings, as part of this American holiday ritual. Several American Para-cycling stars shared what was on their minds and in their hearts at Thanksgiving.
Paralympic hand-cycling silver medalist Alicia Dana has been busy working on her house in Vermont, and keeping her training going for 2021. Dana’s schedule for this year looked different than she planned, thanks to the cancelation of events and the moving of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 to 2021.
Dana had entered 2020 thinking she would retire after her third Paralympic appearance. This Thanksgiving would be the first in a long time where she would be off her bike and starting the next phase of her life.
Then the curveballs of 2020 came, and she is delaying that retirement for a year. Now, she is still training hard to be her best for her 2021 schedule and close out her career on her terms.
She said she is grateful for a lot of things in her life:
“I am thankful for the Para-cycling/cycling community, that inspires and motivates me, and from whom I learn and grow as an athlete,” Dana said. “I'm thankful to U.S. Paralympics Cycling for providing the support and rewards structure that allows me to compete at a high level in an incredible sport. I am thankful to my family and friends for their invaluable moral support and love. I am grateful to the designers, fabricators, engineers of handcycling technology for continuously improving the machine and therefore the experience. I am grateful to excellent and competent bike mechanics who save my butt and keep me on the road. Last, but not least, I am grateful to my cat for always being there for me at the end of the day...”
Six-time Paralympic road cycling medalist Oz Sanchez has enough for two people to be thankful for this holiday. A new house. A new baby. A renewed drive to train harder. And a new bike, which he said is making him even faster.
Sanchez, who has been on three Paralympic teams, said his whirlwind year has brought him joy and gratefulness. And no, he will not be indulging in the good stuff on Thanksgiving, as he is firmly in training and nutrition modes.
He said he intends to enjoy the holidays and balance it with his plans to be at his best for the upcoming racing season and Tokyo Games.
“On this Thanksgiving season, I reflect on all that I have to be grateful for,” he said. “This particular year was especially significant. In a short timeframe of about six months, I bought my first home with my wife, welcomed my first child and son, Benicio, into the world and have managed to not only contend with the onset of COVID quarantine, but thrive in spite of it!
“It is difficult to put into words all that sport has taught me through the years, but this year is a wonderful culmination of such wisdom and insights so that, despite being in the middle of a pandemic and historical moment, I can look back at this year and say I was prepared for the changing times!”
Para-cyclists and Tokyo 2021 hopefuls Clara Brown and Noah Middlestaedt are busy this holiday season. They are maintaining their training schedule, now moving to inside cycling in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with winter approaching.
This year has brought starts and stops to their competition schedule, but they have maintained their overall focus — getting stronger and faster to reach their first Paralympic Games.
Brown and Middlestaedt added a chocolate lab puppy named Kyia to their lives this summer, adding laughs and goofiness to the house.
Their lives are full, as training partners, Middlestaedt coaching Brown and others, and their lives as a couple. There is much to be thankful for, according to them.
“First and foremost, we both recognize how lucky we are to have healthy bodies and to have the ability to prioritize our well-being over everything else in our lives, especially in the midst of a global pandemic,” Brown said, on behalf of herself and Middlestaedt. “Further, we are incredibly grateful for a wide network of family, friends, teammates, and mentors who have made us feel loved and supported (virtually, of course!), despite being physically isolated for most of the year.
“Lastly, we are thankful for a playful and adoring puppy, who brought so much joy to our lives this year.”
Last Thanksgiving, Team USA Para-cyclist Bryan Larsen was in a challenging place. He was hurt in July 2019, while racing, putting him in the ICU and changing his life. He suffered a concussion, shock to his spine, and a permanent injury to his right arm. At this time last year, he was still wondering what his life could look like, as he was in a hard journey of surgeries, rehab and overcoming pain.
The being on his bike and racing on a track did not seem like it would be feasible.
But his determination to resume his longtime elite cycling career, now as a Para-cyclist, is opening new doors. He is training, learning how to ride with his impairment, and hopes to be part of Team USA for the Tokyo 2021 Games.
Larsen’s life has changed in ways he never anticipated, and he is thankful for the people who have stood by him.
“Above all else, I'm thankful for my community. Both the daily support of people like my girlfriend, Ashley, and the California racing community at large has helped keep me afloat during some of my darkest times since my accident,” he said. “There is one theme that is echoed by those who have been injured by an accident: ‘It could have been worse and I'm lucky, happy, and thankful that it wasn't.’
“This is especially true for my impairment. I'm so thankful that I can still do so many things I love doing with people I love by my side.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.