The Journey Takes Another Twist, #Road2Rio

As many of you know, my #Road2Rio was an up and down rollercoaster ride where what was expected never happened.  From the heartbreaking news that shattered my dream of winning gold in Paratriathlon at the end of 2014 to the search for a new sport that would get me to Rio via a different route.  My attempts to get to Rio running the marathon were halted by stress fracture and injury and I was once again forced to turn a different direction.  In May of 2015, I competed in my first pure cycling event in my life and had some great performances that landed me on the US National Para-Cycling Team racing overseas internationally.  My first few international races in Para-Cycling were riddled with mechanical problems and a crash which left me scurrying to find something that would work.  Finally, some success inPara-Cycling came in the summer of 2015 where we took two silver medal podium finishes in one of the toughest categories in the world. The US Team hadn't had a tandem podium in years and we were finally starting to be a force that others feared on the international level.  

Going into 2016, I selected Ben Collins as my primary pilot going forward on the push towards Rio.  In order to maximize our chances of getting to Rio we would have to add another piece to our arsenal.  We would have to get onto the velodrome track.  Getting on the velodrome is a major learning process for anyone but when you are doing it on a tandem there are many more factors that come into play.  The biggest factor that came into play for us was finding a track tandem.  There are probably only five track tandems in the entire US and finding parts that are compatible with a track tandem is are few and very far between.  Needless to say, we competed at our first track event and had more mechanical issues and showed that sprinting is not our specialty.  We were not selected to the US Team going to the Para-Cycling Track World Championships which definitely did not help our chances to get to Rio but was did not take us out of the hunt.  

Our next real shot of getting selected to the #1 Para-Cycling Team in the world would be at the Paralympic Trials in Charlotte on July 2, 2016.  Prior to the trials would be a World Cup event in Belgium which was the last sneak peak of the competition that would be racing in Rio. Ben and I were training hard for this event and i was also working a ton at my Physical Therapy job.  Just when I thought everything was beginning to click, my body's energy levels began to plummet and I was weaker than a kitten.  I began sleeping up to 15hrs on many days and my legs felt as though they would buckle at any moment.   I had a team of medical professionals, dietitians and coaches tracking my recovery each and every day but my performance at the Belgium World Cup was evidence that I was running at no more than 60-70%.  

A few weeks later things began to come around. I raced with Colin Riley at the Para-Cycling National Championships Road Time Trial in Winston Salem, NC and we defended our title from the year before.   Even so, we would need a much better performance the trials just a month later.  

Another wrench was thrown into our journey when we found out that the UCI had ring-fenced 4 of the 9 male slots that the US team had earned for Rio.  Ring fencing is where the UCItakes slots from a country and allocates those spots to specific classifications.  These spots are typically in less represented and more "disabled" classes and these ring fenced spots go away from your team's earned spots.  The men's tandem (blind) class is pretty much never ring fenced.  Four of the nine US male spots were ring fenced and this left five spots left.  The rest of the team would be selected by performances at the Track Cycling and Road World Championships results as well as from the Paralympic Trials in Charlotte in July.  Selection at the trials was based on Standard which is a method that places all classes on the same % scale.  The procedure for creating the Standard for each class is much too lengthy and detailed to explain so we will refrain from that as this is a blog post and not a novel. 

With knowledge of the ring fenced spots and all of the other selection procedures we knew that going into the US Paralympic Cycling Trials in Charlotte there was really only two spots up for grabs.  We needed a near perfect race and even that may not be enough.  We were having that perfect race in Charlotte until our bike failed us once again.  Ben Collins has already explained in details what happened at the Paralympic Cycling trials in Charlotte in a previous blog (READ BLOG HERE).  The mechanical failure of the bike with half a mileto go eliminated our chances of getting selected for the team going to Rio, or so we thought.  

On July 3rd the 2016 US Paralympic Cycling Team going to Rio was announced and our names were not on the list.  We returned home to Seattle feeling like a child lost in the mall looking for their parents.  We didn’t really know what just happened and we had no idea what we would be doing next.  For me it was time to move on. It was time to find full time work as a physical therapist and begin the process of starting a family.  Although I had a few races planned , I considered myself “mostly retired” and competing had now become a lower priority

I did have one more race on my calendar and so I did get back in the pool a few times and splash around a bit and run here and there before the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands on July 23rd but after that I was pretty much a weekend warrior.  

Controversy began to arise as the Rio Olympic Games neared and questions whether the Russians would compete in the Olympic games swirled among the media following numerous findings of a systematic doping culture in the country.  The I.O.C. claimed that they had a “Zero Tolerance” policy on doping but still somehow allowed Russia to compete at the Olympic Games.  This was very strong evidence that money and power rule decisions and not ethical reasoning.   Once this decision was made, I figured that it was all but assured that the Russians would also be able to compete in the Paralympic Games.  I figured that this decision set the precedent for the decision on Paralympic competition.  More and more positive samples from Paralympic athletes arose and this put the pressure on the I.P.c. to make a decision.  I was loosely following updates on what was going on but figured that there was about a 10% shot that Russia would be banned from Paralympic Competition and about a 2% chance that if they were banned that we would get selected to replace the banned Russian athletes.  

In early August the IPC made a shocking decision to banned all Russians from competing the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.  By rule though Russia had the right to appeal and had 21 days to do so.  Whatever decision would be made would leave very little time before the games.  At this point, I spent a little bit of time researching how many Russian male athletes were scheduled to compete across all classifications in pare-cycling and found out that there were six.  I was pretty sure that we were the highest ranked tandem the world that was not scheduled to compete but I had no idea how slots would be allocated if the banned on Russia remained.  This was all just an afterthought in the back of my head as I had moved on and had many days of work lined up through the end of September.  

On the morning of August 21st, I was walking to the store and reading the top stories on Google News and saw an article titled, “Russian Appeal Denied, Banned on Paralympics Remains.”  I immediately texted Ian Lawless, high performance director for US Para-Cycling and linked the article.  My text read, “Hey Ian, just saw this article. Do you know how slots will be allocated?  Let me know ASAP.”   I then began walking to a meeting scheduled for 10AM.  At 9:45AM, I received a phone call from Ian and he asked me if I could be on a conference call at 1:00PM that afternoon.  He also posed a few questions that gave me some clues on what the call was about.  He asked, “If you were selected to go to Rio by this decision, who would you select as your pilot?”  I responded Ben Collins and he said, “Okay, good.  We should probably have him on this call as well.”  I hung up the phone and tried every means to get ahold of Ben as this is not an easy task as that know him will attest. He was on a bike ride of course and luckily I got his attention through his mom who repeatedly called him.  

When I explained the scenario to Ben he was quiet at first but this was probably because he was pondering his life’s future and how he would change all the plans that he had already changed once if we were in fact selected to the team.  He then became excited and agreed to be on the call at 1:00PM. 

A few minutes after 1:00PM on August 21st, Ben and I got a call from Ian Lawless and head coach Michael Creed. They revealed that the UCI had decided to grant an invitation for me to compete in Rio.  Ben and I accepted the slot and remained on the phone for details on the frantic future we would have ahead of us.  When we were first given the dates that we would be gone both our jaws dropped.  They said we would need to be at Team Campon July 23rd and we would return from Rio on September 20th.  This was a shocker and we requested a few extra days to get our ducks in a row and were granted this time.  We would instead go to training camp in Oxnard, CA on Sunday August 25th.  

After hanging up the phone I think we both just sat there for a few minutes wondering what just hit me.  Was this real?  What the heck am I going to do about work?  How the heck am I going to get back in shape that quickly?  All of these questions and excitement were running through me. Of course, my first instinct is to post the good news on social media.  Before I pushed send though, I remembered that we were told not to publicly disclose the news until the USOC puts out a press release.  This press release would not come for five days and man was it difficult to not let the cat out of the bag.  I guess the good way of looking at this was that it gave Ben and I more time to get back on the tandem and remember how to ride.

So, if you have been feeling left hanging on how my Road2Rio took a wild and crazy turn just weeks before the games, now you have the full scoop leading up to Rio. What’s next?  Next, I will give you inside scoop on Team USA Athlete Processing in Houston and then a sneak peak into the Paralympic Village.  After that I will take you aboard the Pain Train at the Paralympic Games for our Road Time Trial and Road Race.  I hope you have enjoyed this lead up and final twist in the Road2Rio saga. 


Aaron ScheidiesComment