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Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing

What happens when a cyclist loses the use of their legs?

Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing
Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing

Cycle of Hope, by Tricia DowningTitle: Cycle of Hope - A Journey from Paralysis to Possibility
Author: Tricia Downing
Publisher: Front Street Press
Year: 2010 (reissued 2017)
Pages: 224
Order: Tricia Downing
What it is: What happens when a cyclist loses the use of their legs?
Strengths: Downing's honest telling of her story - the mental and the physical hurdles encountered - is as much about athletes in general as it is about para-athletes in particular but for the latter this is also one of those rare chances to see the possibilities out there
Weaknesses: Some readers may wish for more detail on the races but really there is more to some stories than just race reports

You have to be patient.
You will still be able to do all the things you used to do,
but you're going to have to learn new ways to do them.
~ Tricia Downing, Cycle of Hope

Thirty, about to become thirty-something, Trish Downing spent the summer of 2000 racing bikes. July was crits in Wisconsin during Superweek. Then it was off to Indiana for the Masters nationals. And then on to Pennsylvania for the Tour de Toona. At the same time as all that, Downing was having one of those love life misadventures that come along every now and again: she had accidentally ended up with two different boyfriends on the boil at the same time:

One month before I met Matt in Wisconsin, I met Dave. Since I was a teacher at the time, I had the great fortune of having my summer off. I decided to spend the beginning of the summer in Colorado Springs, where I had lived previously, racing and training with friends. My plan was to hang out there for a few weeks and then hit the road and race as much as I possibly could. I had planned to take a four-week trip across the country to participate in some multi-day competitions and to live the life of a professional cyclist. Eat, ride, sleep, repeat. I couldn't think of anything better than riding all day, every day. My plan was to leave for the first series of races in Wisconsin at the beginning of July. In the meantime, I spent my days in the Springs, training with friends who were staying at the Olympic Training Center and racing at the velodrome, a special banked track for bike racing at high speeds.

That's when I met Dave.

Two weeks of getting-to-know-you followed:

He came along exactly at a time when I wanted to be in a relationship, but while I liked him, I wasn't crazy about him. I liked the idea of being with him, though. He was the complete package. Not only could he fix my bike and challenge me on a ride, he could also whip up an amazing meal, keep a clean and tidy house and was incredibly bright. On paper: perfect. In reality, he didn't light a spark, but I was willing to try. However, I would put our relationship on hold until I returned from my trip.

Then Downing was off to Wisconsin and Superweek, which is actually two weeks or so off races spread across the state. Where Faith tossed Matt into her path:

One day, the race was on a beautiful course in Whitnall Park. When my event was over, I went back to the hostel to shower and then returned to the park to watch the pro races. As I was sitting there sunning myself, a good-looking guy with short, dark hair and piercing blue eyes came up to me and said, 'Mind if I join you?'

'Uh, no...not at all,' I stammered.

A couple of days later they met again at another race and, well, k-i-s-s-i-n-g ensued.

Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing

Wisconsin, with Matt and others

So now, having gone a couple of years without even one, Downing was juggling two boyfs. To top the perfect summer - come on, successfully juggling two boyfs as you tear-ass across the country racing bikes, that's Mrs Poppins territory, practically perfect - she got offered a job:

On the way, as I drove through cornfields in Illinois, my cell phone rang. On the other end was the principal of a high school where I had interviewed for a new job at the end of the previous school year and before heading off on my summer-of-cycling road trip. I was offered a new job within the Denver Public Schools at a school I, myself had attended as an eleventh grader. The position was an Internship Coordinator, placing high school juniors and seniors in real life job experiences.

Okay, maybe this isn't quite perfect, I mean now a decision had to be made - Matt or Dave:

Although Matt was the first call I made when I arrived back in Denver and we continued talking and emailing over the next few weeks, I eventually settled back into the real world and resigned myself to the fact that my real life was in Colorado. And since that was where Dave was too, I was going to try to make it work.

So Matt got the old heave ho. But before heading off to Splitsville he and Downing got to spend one last weekend together, riding bikes. At the end of which Downing found herself in a hospital bed, paralysed from the chest down.

* * * * *

Before her accident, Downing had had a good life. A little bit complicated at times, for sure, but they were good-ish complications. After the accident? She was told it was over. For someone who had defined herself by the things she did, by being a sporty person, that must have seemed true:

I always liked riding bikes. After all, it was my main form of transportation for the first fifteen years of my life. Without my bike, there would have been no way to get to the pool and swim team practice, no riding with the neighbor kids to the playground or pedaling to Dairy Queen with my family on summer nights. But I didn't develop a passion for it until I did an internship for graduate school at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs. I was finishing a Masters Degree in Physical Education and Sports Management at Eastern Illinois University when my professor asked me one day how I might like to do an internship at the OTC. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. 'I would love that! In fact, it would be a dream come true,' I exclaimed. She gave me the application and I filled it out immediately. During the summer of 1995, I was accepted and placed at USA Cycling, the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States. At the time I knew nothing about bike racing, but I loved sports and knew I could learn. As it happened, they were short staffed in the office during the months I was there, so I was flown around the country as part of the communications team to cover road and track races for junior, master and elite racers. It was such an exciting sport. Speed, tactics, crashing. Amazing. My favorite was watching the track races at the velodrome. I couldn't believe those bikes didn't have any brakes and only one gear. How do they ride on that steep bank...and go so fast? I have to try that! All summer I watched these races and dreamed about getting on a track bike and giving it a go. My internship was soon over, but I never stopped thinking about someday getting on the track.

Post-accident, Downing was set to be defined by what she was: someone in a wheelchair, a paraplegic.

But - with help - she came to realise she could still be what she had been: sporty. Rehab had involved lots of physical therapy and occupational therapy and weights and wheelchair classes. But it also involved recreational therapy:

'Hi Trish. I'm Claire. I'm a recreational therapist and my job is to teach you the fun stuff. I hear you're an athlete?'

'Yeah, I used to be a cyclist,' I said bitterly.

'You can still be a cyclist. You can still do all the same things you used to do, you know? You just have to learn new ways of doing them.'

I rolled my eyes.

'Really, you can do the things you used to do. I can teach you. You came in here an athlete and I'm going to make sure you leave here an athlete. Tell me what kind of things you'd like to do.'

It wasn't as easy as all that, of course. The racing chair took getting used to, as did the handcycle. Muscles had to be built. The swimming, though, was the hardest:

The excitement built in me as Claire helped me slide off the lift and into the water. She held me under my shoulders and had me float on my back for a minute while I got used to being in the water, but I was anxious to show off my swimming prowess (so I thought), so I had her help me turn over so I could swim the length of the pool freestyle. Just as she turned me over and let go, I took one stroke and didn't take one more. I started to sink. Since I was such a competent swimmer before, I had never had this sensation. I started to panic. I was losing my breath and was praying Claire would notice my distress and pull me up. It seemed like minutes, but right at the moment I didn't think I could hold my breath a second longer, Claire helped me to the surface. I was in shock and not sure what to think, so I asked her to help me try again. As she turned me over, the same thing happened. My hips flexed, my legs spasmed and the dead weight of my lifeless legs sunk me like there was an anchor tied around my waist. Again I struggled and again Claire pulled me to the surface. It wasn't a fluke. I couldn't swim. "Forget it! Get me out of the pool. I don't want to do this anymore!" I yelled at Claire. 'Trish, we have only started. Give it a chance,' she pleaded. 'No. Get me out. I'm not a swimmer anymore. I can't do it and I don't want to do it and I'm never going to bother getting in the water again!' I answered.

Good days came and so did bad as Downing's rehab progressed. The handcycle and the racing chair gave her life some sense of meaning but they also fed into funks and both could go untouched for weeks. Then, one day, she decided she needed to crack that swimming thing. And this time, with more realistic expectations and more patience, she did it:

Re-learning to swim was yet another catalyst, which assisted in getting me back on track and moving forward. With each accomplishment and life task that had became easier and more automatic over time, the grasp of despair I had experienced in the aftermath of my accident was slowly losing hold and my optimistic personality was peeking through to the light of day. And when presented with the challenge of getting back in the game of life, I finally accepted the charge. It was up to me to mold my life into one worth living. I could continue to let my disability define me, or I could open my arms to it, embrace it and let it guide me down a new path—one I could never have anticipated, but one with the capacity to be every bit as rewarding as that traveled by my former self. Again, my passion for sports would help me make another leap forward in healing.

Downing could have just stuck with handcycling, but the races there were run off in conjunction with bike races and that would have put her back in her old world, around people she used to know:

I'd be surrounded by people riding bikes, racing the way I used to. The way I still longed to race, and I didn't want to put myself into situations that would drag me back down into the hole from which I was finally emerging. I wanted to start in a new direction and take part in a sport that could fulfill my need for endurance and competition, but with a change in atmosphere and new circle of people.

Which is how she hit on the idea of tackling triathlon. And how one thing lead to another and how she ended up aiming at Ironman - swim (3.9 kms), handcycle (180.2 kms), race chair (42.2 kms):

I liked the idea of the Iron distance triathlons because, let's face it, I was no spring chicken and my days of sprinting were long gone. I was better at events requiring endurance. Also, I liked the idea of doing something original. Since I had started racing, I had met only three other women in chairs who had even done a triathlon, and none of them had done as many as I had. Nor had a female paraplegic finished an Iron distance race, as I had. Plus, I figured after all I had endured with my injury, it was going to take something pretty significant to pose a greater trial than what I had been through in the past five years.

And that's what Cycle of Hope is ultimately about, Downing's path to becoming an Ironman. It's not simple, there's plenty of failure along the way. But it's also not one of those Hallmarked philosophy lessons, every failure Downing endures painted up as a life lesson for the reader. This isn't one of those aphorism-laden triumphs of the spirit. Frankly, at some points, the wheelchair and the handcycle become almost invisible as Downing battles the sort of demons she would have been battling had she been able to continue riding her bike: bad days where the body wants to give in and bad days when the mind wants to quit. And this, I guess, is the lesson of Cycle of Hope: an athlete in a wheelchair is still an athlete, dealing with the same crap as other athletes.

Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing

Cycle of Hope, by Tricia Downing

Yes, it's not as simple as that. Athletes in parasports have additional problems: physical problems, psychological problems, even equipment problems that other athletes don't face. Look at something as simple as role models: back when all this was new for Downing parasport was largely ignored by the media. And that media coverage fed back into participation: when Downing started, USA Triathlon's para membership was in the teens. In the years since, that has improved: today, Downing reckons it's in the hundreds, thanks in part to better media coverage of parasports. Certainly on this side of the Atlantic, people today recognise names like Tanni Grey-Thompson, Sarah Storey, Jody Cundy, David Weir. The level of coverage, and the level of participation, are far from ideal, of course. But they are improving, slowly. Cycle of Hope can help to improve both more, showing as it does that parasports can and do deliver many of the same stories as other sports, that their stories of individual struggle make them as deserving of the coverage as other sports.