An Athlete First

| May 31, 2010 | 0 Comments

Trish Downing

Wheelchair-bound triathlete Trish Downing doesn’t want to stand out in a crowd.

Trish Downing was hoping for a personal record at the 2009 Duathlon World Championship. If all three legs of the race went well, she thought, with her racing wheelchair and handcycle she could cross the finish line after a 10-km roll, 40-km bike, and 5-km finishing leg in 2.5 hours or less. But from the start, everything went wrong.

Near the beginning of the first wheelchair section, when Trish was surrounded by runners, a tire on her racing chair sprang a leak and the torrential rain made the push rims on her custom-made wheelchair almost too slippery to grip. On the bike leg, she struggled to steer her handcycle as puddles splashed her face. By the time Trish sat back in her wheelchair to start the race’s final leg, the sun had set, the other competitors were packing up, and race officials wanted to pull her from the course.

Since then, Trish has been the first female paraplegic to complete an Ironman-distance triathlon and during this one, she wasn’t about to give up. “The entire time I kept telling myself that I had to finish, no matter what,” she says. And she did, crossing the line in 4 hours and 10 minutes, a time nearly double that of what she expected.

As Trish headed back to her car to go home, a man approached her. “You inspired us tonight,” he said. “All the EMTs and security staff enjoyed watching your determination. You are amazing.”

This is the kind of praise Trish hears often, and it usually leaves her feeling conflicted. While part of her takes pride in her ability to inspire—this fall she’s leading the second-ever Camp Discovery program to help women in wheelchairs increase their self-esteem—another part longs to blend into the crowd. “Sometimes, I want to be seen as just another athlete,” she says. “Someone who competes and trains as hard as anyone else. I understand there’s this whole inspirational piece, but I want to be seen as an athlete first.”

Back in 2000, Trish was, in fact, just another athlete training to advance to elite-level criterium, or short-course, cycling. On September 17 of that year, she was on a 40-mile training ride when a car turned in front of her, striking her head-on. Trish catapulted onto the windshield before bouncing to the ground. Almost immediately, she knew she was paralyzed. “I couldn’t feel my legs,” she recalls.

Trish had broken her neck, scapula, and two ribs. Her spinal cord was so badly damaged she’d never walk again. Her competitive fire, however, still smoldered. Even as she labored to relearn simple, everyday tasks, she made plans to return to her life as an athlete. While still in the hospital, Trish applied for grants that helped her purchase a handcycle and a race-ready wheelchair. Six months later she rolled across the finish line at the Kona Half Marathon.

Just one year later, Trish’s race schedule was in full swing. Though criterium cycling had been her greatest passion as an able-bodied athlete, the emotional trauma of returning to it was overwhelming. She focused on combining her cycling experience with another strength—she’d been a swimmer her whole life—and doing triathlons instead. Within four years of her injury, she’d worked her way up from sprint- to half-Ironman-distance to a full-Ironman-distance race. When she completed the 2004 Redman Triathlon in Oklahoma City with a time of 18 hours, 3 minutes, she became the first-ever (and the only to date) female paraplegic to finish an Ironman-distance triathlon—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run.

Trish has since competed in four other Ironman-distance races, including the Ironman World Championship in Kona. Even though the inspirational element of her new life comes second to her competitive spirit, she’s also become a hot ticket on the motivational-lecture circuit. In 2008, she left her job as a high school teacher to become a full-time speaker and write her first book, Cycle of Hope: My Journey From Paralysis to Possibility (Authority Publishing, 2010; $20), which was released in May.

Trish’s audiences range from women’s groups to college students, but she usually begins her talks the same way: by describing her first triathlon as a physically challenged athlete. “I’m rolling around the deck of the swimming pool looking at all these tanned, fit bodies, and I knew what they were thinking,” she says. “They were thinking, What is that gimp in a wheelchair doing in a swimsuit? Can she even swim?” She managed to backstroke the entire distance, but negative thoughts plagued her at the beginning of the race. It wasn’t until she was struggling to sweep the course, in last place, that she remembered advice she’d received as a criterium racer: You can’t let just one race define who you are as an athlete. You can only do what your body can do on a given day. Ride your own race.

Crossing that finish line, Trish felt like an athlete again. But her recounting of the tale isn’t meant to hold her up as someone special, she insists, but rather to remind people that ultimately everyone controls his or her own destiny.

Making positive choices is what has set Trish apart, and she’s trying to help other women in similar situations do the same by helping them learn from each other. For years, she longed to meet other wheelchair-confined women to share notes, especially on personal issues. “You think about things like: Will I ever get married? Will anyone ever love me? Will I ever have sex?” she says. Trish wanted to empower these women to take risks by exposing them to new ideas and helping them understand that their limitations, or their wheelchairs, didn’t define them.

With support from the AVON Hello Tomorrow Fund, the Challenged Athlete Foundation, and Craig Hospital, where she recovered after her injury and which specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation, Trish organized Camp Discovery. The three-day program was meant to challenge wheelchair-bound women physically and mentally. They’d participate in a wide variety of sports—from golf to scuba diving to cycling—and meet with life coaches while mixing with other campers.

On October 1, 2009, 20 women gathered to spend three days trying new things. Their medical conditions ranged from spinal-cord injuries to multiple sclerosis to spina bifida, but for all of them, the camp was life-transforming. Trish recalls one woman crying during a group handcycle ride who said, “My parents never told me I could do things like this. I didn’t realize it was possible.” Trish’s driving had inspired another camper to get behind the wheel for the first time.

This year Trish will repeat Camp Discovery and also offer a second camp with a triathlon-training focus. As arguably the most experienced female wheelchair triathlete in the world, she will share everything from nutrition to equipment maintenance in preparation for the program’s activity: competing in the Rattlesnake Triathlon in Aurora, Colorado.

In seven years, Trish has only competed alongside another wheelchair-bound woman once. This year’s Camp Discovery and Trish’s mentoring will bring a handful of new paraplegic racers to the course. This time, sitting in her racing wheelchair near the start line she’ll be just another athlete in the crowd, but one with a whole category of racers looking up to her.

—Nancy Averett

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