Get in the Game

by Trish Downing 9

Tricia DowningImagine a moment so dramatic that it could define you for the rest of your days. That it could change what you do, how you do it and call into question every dream you’ve ever dared to chase. What happens when you arrive back at square one?

For me, that day was September 17, 2000. At the time I was a competitive cyclist and my enthusiasm for the sport could not have been greater. All I wanted to do was ride, race and ride some more. I loved it. During the summer of 2000, I packed my car and set off across the country to compete in as many races as I could. When I returned home five weeks later I was more excited than ever to pursue the sport with everything I had.

But on a beautiful fall day, while on a ride with a friend, I was hit head on by a car. The impact sent me soaring off my bike, over the front windshield of the car and on to the ground. I was paralyzed instantly.

In the first moments, days and weeks I dealt with pain, confusion and uncertainty. But after the initial shock wore off, I was struck by the realization that a wheelchair would now be my mode of transportation and I was terrified by the thought of having to live my life on the sidelines. Fortunately, my team of rehab specialists (doctors, nurses, physical therapist, occupational therapist and recreation therapist) had different ideas for me. On one particularly difficult day in therapy, my physical therapist said, “Trish, you have a long road ahead of you, but I assure you that you’ll still be able to do all the same things you’ve ever done. You’ll just have to learn to do them in new ways.”

I didn’t realize at first how I could possibly do the same things I did before my injury, but as I write this ten years later, I realize that I AM, in fact, doing the things I did before. I am working a full-time job, spending time with friends and family, owning my own home, driving all the places I need to go and competing in sports.

Being able to get back to sports has been one of the most important things in my life. I have always been an athlete. It is my love and passion and the fact that I was able to find activities that were adaptable to my new situation was one of the greatest discoveries of my life. It wasn’t easy to build my arms and shoulders to be able to handle riding a handcycle or pushing a racing chair. And re-learning to swim was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But again, it was advice from one of my therapists that stuck with me. She told me if I worked hard, did a little more everyday, stayed patient and didn’t give up, that I could build on my skills and achieve in direct correlation to my motivation.

I started small, just riding the handcycle and pushing my racing chair around the neighborhood with friends. I’d swim a few laps every week, but just as my therapist said, I did a little more each time. I remember the first time I rode ten miles on the handcycle. It was like the biggest accomplishment in the world. If you would have told me that four years after that day, I would compete in my first Ironman triathlon, I would never have believed it. But that working hard and doing a little more each day paid off. In 2005, I competed in the Redman Ironman in Oklahoma City. Sure enough, I had worked hard enough to be able to complete 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles handcycling and 26.2 miles in the racing chair. It took me 18 hours and three minutes, but when I crossed the finish line I realized that I was much more powerful than I ever thought.

Tricia Downing on the Podium

My accident had definitely derailed me but it hadn’t stopped me. It taught me to look inside myself for strength and to not give up on my dreams and goals. The thing is that life is a lot like an endurance event and it doesn’t matter if you are an athlete or not. We all have races to run and finish lines to cross. And how you do depends on your willingness to get in the game, give it all you’ve got and follow though to the very end.

Trish Downing is a triathlete who is “redefining able” as the second female wheelchair racer (first female paraplegic) to complete an Iron distance triathlon. Growing up, she was a high school varsity gymnast and swimmer, and a Division I diver... {more»}