Thursday, August 7, 2014

Six Years On

Today marks the six-year anniversary of my dad's death. A lot has happened in those six years and I can't help but think how different things would be if he were still around. With that said, I know I wouldn't be the person I am without his passing- thinking about it all is a dangerous game of "what-if?" that I don't usually play. The anger I had towards him has passed and I'm able to focus on the good memories, and all the fun that we had like playing in the yard, making teepees and torches, eating (daily) cheez-whiz sandwiches and salami, spray painting things, and driving around in his work truck.

My dad took me to my very first bike race- the Monster's of the Midway crit- and I like to think he had a good time. Sure, he had his concerns about the inherent dangers of the sport but was one of the few people who was really on board with me cycling- he could see how happy it made me to ride, race, and progress through the sport. In his own way, he was with me from the very beginning. He died just before I competed in the Beijing Games. Six years ago, getting on the bike was the only thing I could think to do, to try to escape it all. Now, when I ride, my mind is free to think about how great this wild life is! I miss him, what was, and what might have been.

I love you, Dad!

The post below is from two years ago, four years on from his death, and I thought I'd re-share it for you all.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Then and Now

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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

2014 Para-cycling Track World Championships

The UCI’s Para-cycling Track World Championships took place in Aguascalientes, Mexico last week, 4/10-13. The track in Aguascalientes is currently the world’s fastest track, and was host to an able-bodied world cup earlier in the season. With a roster of 16 athletes- some veterans and some rookies- Team USA was ready to rock and roll at the first major track competition since the London Paralympic games in 2012. 

My focus going into these world championships was the 3km Individual Pursuit. It compliments the road time trial well and is, masochistically, an event that I enjoy. It had been several years- 2009 track worlds in Manchester, ENG- since I’d ridden what I considered a “good” pursuit. After a solid block of track training in Colorado Springs, CO and at the Velo Sports Center in Carson, CA, the times were steadily coming down and I was feeling more and more comfortable on the track. By the time we got to Mexico and rode the track in training, I knew conditions would be ripe for fast racing and lots of records to be broken. First up on my competition schedule was the 500m TT, a race that I don’t train specifically for and have had mixed results with in the past. Since it was the first day of competition, we decided it would be a good opportunity to take the line with no pressure, to get the feel of the start gate, and to open up the legs before the pursuit. I rode a full second faster than my previous best and finished up 6th against some very fast girls- the world record was broken for the first time since 2007!

Saturday- pursuit day- rolled around and I was feeling great. The hot, dry air and altitude of Aguascalientes, and the blistering temperatures inside the velodrome hardly phased me. After a good warm up, I took the start against a rider from New Zealand who is a very good pursuiter. Things went exactly as planned and I was able to ride to a 3:46.1 and qualified 3rd to ride for bronze that afternoon against the same rider from New Zealand. Being able to set a new PR and American record was a huge monkey off my back as it was something I’d been working at but had fallen short many, many times. 

That afternoon, I had an abbreviated warm up due to the heat of the track- afternoon sessions regularly were 105°F or more- and the morning’s ride. I wanted a medal so, so badly and knew it was within reach. All I had to do was exactly what I did in the morning- ride steadily and try to build into the race, mentally breaking my opponent in the process. On the start line, my coach Andy said to me “You want this medal more than she does, go take it” and hearing those words was the extra fire I needed to ride even faster than the morning. I couldn’t hear a single split, the crowd blended together, the lap counter was blurred, but I knew I was riding well. My legs felt great and mind was laser focused on winning a medal. Each lap I chipped away at the time, gaining on my opponent until I was close enough to see her on the same straightaway. That was all I needed to get the last bit out of my body to make the catch with one lap to go, winning the match and the bronze medal. When the catch happened, the gun went off and I instinctively sat up knowing the race was over. Now though, I wish that I’d kept going as Andy told me afterwards that I was on pace for a 3:41.0 and only had one lap to go! Knowing that I have that type of ride in me is a huge confidence boost and now, going into the road season, will help me to suffer even more knowing that that effort is there. And hey, soon enough I’ll get that 41 for myself. 
WC5 Pursuit Podium (Credit: Eamonn Deane)

I am always so proud to represent the US in competition. Being able to contribute to the medal count is a special opportunity. In total, Team USA came home with nine medals, the most of any American track world championship team, with two gold, two silver, and five bronze medals.

Myself, Jamie W., and Allison J. after our pursuit podiums.

Huge thanks to Felt bikes, Catlike helmets, Speedplay, Oakley, SRAM, US Paralympics and Twenty16 Pro Cycling for the support and making this medal possible!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Where to Begin?

It's been about five months since I last wrote, mainly, because I didn't feel there was anything to write. Looking back now, there was a lot to write about- renewing my contract with TWENTY16 Pro Cycling, competing in multiple races, several training camps, moving back to the Colorado Springs OTC, and generally re-dedicating myself to the sport of cycling.

Last summer, the (then) new head coach of the paracycling national team asked if I would be interested in moving back to the OTC to be part of a developing resident program. At first, I was extremely hesitant to even consider it- the previous experience with the resident program left me overtrained, burned out, disliking the sport, and an angry individual. After carefully examining the situation I had left, I realized it wasn't the OTC that was the problem; it was the people I had surrounded myself with, and the decisions I made during my residency that tainted the experience, not the location itself. The more thought I gave it, the more it made sense to move back. The training center offers fantastic opportunities to capitalize on, the track is nearby, and living at altitude is a nice training bonus. This time, I've approached residency differently than the last time- it no longer has the "Disneyland effect" and the sense of "wow, this is the OTC, wahoo!" is replaced by "I have specific goals that I will accomplish by utilizing the resources available to me." mindset. That's not to say that it isn't cool to live there, it absolutely is, but there are things that I want and need to accomplish in my career that can be done through residency at the OTC. It's a privilege to live there and I want to make the most of it. 

This change in attitude didn't come overnight, and wasn't spurred only by the program restarting, it took many months to work it out. Living on my own, working a bit, training on my own taught me how to be more responsible and value things that I took for granted before. I learned how to maximize training efficiency, how to get a little bit of balance in my life, how to be a semi-normal person, and, really, just grew up. It's cliché but true, and gave me a better appreciation of things.

In January, I moved back into the dorms, only one room over from where I'd lived for the better part of five years. It's strange, in ways, being back and in others not at all. Each day of training is dedicated to a specific goal, all working towards larger projects and races in the future. 

The first big project of the year is Track World Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico. As I'm sitting here, in the Mexican resort/oasis/paradise preparing for my first race of the weekend, I'm thinking back to where I was both physically and mentally just a year ago and how much has changed in that time. I feel as fit, relaxed, and prepared as I've ever been. I'm confident in my own abilities and those of my teammates that we'll perform as well as we're capable. In the end, it doesn't matter what anyone else can- or will- do in a race because all you can do is give all you can. That's it. 

Like each day of training, I'm approaching today's 500m TT carefully, relaxed, and with the confidence of knowing that I can do well.

Thanks for reading.