Para-cycling: behind the success of Team USA
Consistency in every discipline: this is what defines Team USA’s para-cyclists. On the road and on the track, it’s customary to see athletes representing the Stars and Stripes on the podiums of the UCI World Championships and Paralympic Games, whereas other nations seldom excel in both disciplines.
Since 1992, Team USA has always finished in the top five of the cycling medal rankings at the Paralympic Games, including four times in second place: Barcelona 1992, Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, and London 2012.
What’s behind the versatility of American athletes?
Military background: a key component
Some soldiers from the American Armed Forces return home from battle wounded or paralysed. Once their rehabilitation is complete, they have to learn to live with their new physical state. Sport is a means par excellence to achieve this, and the American authorities are fully aware of that.
In 2004, US Paralympics began a recruitment programme. Recruiters combed the country in order to introduce various sports and disciplines to servicemen and servicewomen at physical therapy centres. Those who commit to the programme can even get a first taste of competition at regional events enabling them to quickly determine if they want to be competitive or simply enjoy sport for recreational purposes.
US Paralympics estimates that 2000 military veterans participate in these workshops each year.
Above and beyond the athletic experience, this approach to Paralympic sport also enables new para-athletes to talk with former soldiers who have already taken the same path, and know the challenges that face individuals living with a handicap. Sharing these experiences is certainly not unrelated to the success of American para-cyclists.
For example, three medal-earning athletes from Team USA’s para-cycling division at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games came from the army or the marines. Shawn Morelli was a double gold medallist in the C4 category on the track (time trial and individual pursuit), Oscar Sanchez (H5) was a silver medallist in the mixed relay and bronze medallist in the time trial, and William Groulx (H2) earned a gold medal in the road race and two silvers, in the time trial and mixed relay.
Of course, the USA’s recruitment programme goes beyond that dedicated to soldiers: Gateway to Gold targets handicapped teens and young adults.
Velodromes and mild weather
Two more concrete reasons explain the success of American para-cyclists: velodrome access and mild weather. The United States has close to thirty indoor and outdoor velodromes across the country. Finding a training ground is therefore relatively easy for those who decide to take up track cycling competitively.
On top of that, the climate in the southern and western coastal regions means athletes can ride outdoors all year, allowing them to rack up kilometres.
Team USA will be competing on home ground at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Los Angeles, March 2-5. And the team of 16 – six women and ten men – will be looking to dominate proceedings in front of their own fans.