Four years ago, during the lead up to the Beijing Paralympic Games, my family and I sat in a hospital watching my father die. Waiting. After weeks in the hospital with his health fluctuating, he took a turn for the worse. It was simply a matter of time until the end. It was a situation nobody would want to be in at any point in their lives, especially while gearing up for the largest sporting event in the world.
My father was an alcoholic for most of my life, and he was someone I struggled to get along with. We rarely saw eye to eye and had little in common. Nevertheless, he was my father. And at only twenty, I was about to lose a parent. That’s not supposed to happen until you’re old, and it's certainly not the type of thing that is supposed to happen while you’re preparing for one of the biggest moments of your athletic career. But it did happen. It was real and I had to deal with it.
The day following my father’s death, I returned home to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. With the Games rapidly approaching, I needed to finish my preparation. Cycling, a sport that had been my mental escape since the beginning, no longer provided that respite. My head was going 1000 miles an hour and in what seemed like 1000 different directions. My father was dead. I’d left my family to play bikes and chase a dream of riding in circles (on the velodrome) on the other side of the planet. It felt selfish. It felt like I was running away from what was important. I was running away from my family who needed me. I was running away from responsibility to do what? Dress like a super hero, travel around the world, live the life of a rock star for a few weeks and pretend nothing happened? Some super hero I was.
In retrospect, everything I did is all a blur. The training, the travel to China, the village; even the racing is blurred. There are two very clear memories from those Games. First, walking into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies. I remember looking out over a sea of white caps and navy blazers and listening to the U-S-A chant build as we walked through the tunnel into the Olympic Stadium. The second is not nearly as picturesque. I remember lying on the ground which was covered in a blue, plastic mat (like a plastic carpet) that spanned the entire length of the dam where nations staged for the races. It was after the time trial, my final event, and I was lying on the ground. On this nasty, hot, plastic carpet behind our team’s tent, physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Those two moments are what stand out the most when I think back to the Beijing Games.
Fast-forward four years to today and you’ll see a very different picture. Since Beijing, I’ve grown tremendously as a person- and athlete- and approach the London Paralympics with a healthier mindset. For one, nobody has died in the recent past, which is a plus. But seriously, I’m more focused and mentally prepared. I’m happy! Some of that is from having a better, less stressful preparation, and some is from maturing. I approach these games with a love of the sport, with a love of life, and a level of confidence that I didn’t have four years ago. I’ve learned a lot about myself and am able to employ those lessons and information on and off the bike. (Every sports psychologist will tell you how important life balance is. Being in top form on and off the bike is important to me as well.)
I’ve learned that there is more courage and strength inside than I thought. That I’m capable of more compassion and caring than I knew; that I have a good idea of what I’m doing when it comes to riding a bike, and that I’m a total (not so) hopeless romantic. I’m completely in love, I feel invincible and everything is coming up, Greta! As I said, you would see a different picture.
Now, I’m one of the veterans on the team having been to the ‘Big Show’ before. Four years ago, I made the team by the skin of my teeth. This time around, results from track World Championships meant automatic qualification. Results over the quad have come and given me the confidence as an athlete to know how to handle myself. They certainly weren’t all good but you need to lose to learn how to win- there were plenty of losses, and in turn, were plenty of wins.
The stress that existed four years ago no longer bites at my heel. My family is much closer now and while it’s still difficult being away from them all the time, they know what I’m doing. They will make the trip to London to watch every race and maybe I can be that super hero after all.