Dr. Meg Fisher is an accomplished professional cyclist, former triathlete, and is pioneering the creation of para-cycling categories at off-road events. Meg believes that we are all more capable than we know, and that the bike is a great tool for all of us to explore and redefine our abilities. Meg’s race resume includes eleven World Championship gold medals as well as Paralympic gold, silver and bronze medals from the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games with Team USA. She is the first solo para-cyclist to complete ultra-endurance events like Unbound 200 and Rebecca’s Private Idaho Queen Stage Race.
Being human is hard. I think we can all agree on that fact. I think we can also agree that it’s nearly impossible to accurately see outside of our own perspectives. Still, it’s good practice to try. It’s awesome to see attitudes evolving and how sport across the board is becoming more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for gender identities, body sizes, and ethnicities. From my perspective as a woman in sport, I see that we are still playing catch up. As a para-athlete, I see that every sport still has a lot of room to grow. Cycling is a great place for us all to challenge our preconceived ideas just as much as our physical abilities.
You may be asking “What is a para-athlete?” A para-athlete is an athlete with a permanent physical impairment. Some examples of physical impairments are paralysis, significantly decreased vision, or limb loss. A para-cyclist is a para-athlete who uses either a bike, tricycle, recumbent cycle, kneeling cycle, or a tandem bicycle. Please refer to the International Paralympic Committee, USA Cycling or the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) for more information. Or you're welcome to reach out to me directly. Historically, para-cycling has been limited to road and track racing. It is my mission to educate, advocate for and collaborate with events to include para-cycling categories in gravel and mountain bike events.
Cycling is universal. Kids all over the World learn to ride early in life and the bike often becomes a source of freedom, independence, and joy. Bicycles are empowering.
Did you know that nearly everyone on Earth will experience a physical impairment at some point in their lives?1 That means almost everyone will have an injury that temporarily limits their ability to stand, walk, work, or recreate. Have you ever been to physical therapy before and noticed that every clinic has a bike in it? That’s because bikes can be tools for recovery just as much as for travel, recreation, or competition. Thankfully, most people recover from their injuries.
However, about 1 billion people, or 15% of the World’s population, lives with a permanent physical impairment. Undoubtedly, there is a wide spectrum of functional abilities within those 1 billion people. That said, bikes are highly adaptable from typical upright bikes, to handcycles, trikes, and tandems- which means that a large proportion of people with permanent physical impairments can travel, recreate, and compete with a bicycle, if they so choose. Of course, the key is that a person chooses to bike. After all, bikes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. There is no one right way to travel or recreate, and competition isn’t for everyone. Still, we don’t know what we might like or don’t like, until we are given the chance to try.
Again, it is my mission to enable people to have the choice by creating para-cycling categories at off-road gravel and mountain bike events around the World. At most events there are different distances to choose from. For example, Unbound Gravel offers 25-, 50-, 100-, 200-, and 350-mile options. The shorter distances are more achievable for more people and still every bit as awesome, fun, challenging, and empowering as the longer options. Why not have para-cycling categories alongside age group, trans/non-binary, and pro categories to enable people with physical impairments the same opportunity to explore and redefine their abilities?
The prefix “para-” means alongside or beside. You may be more familiar with the prefix when used in words like parallel, paraprofessional or Paralympics. The Winter Olympics and Paralympics just wrapped up in Tokyo. I bet, if you watched any of the programming online or on tv, you saw Olympians and Paralympians in commercials. Our society truly is evolving to recognize that people with physical impairments deserve equal opportunity to participate and compete.
I am a para-athlete. For a long time, I was an able-bodied athlete. Then, when I was 19 years old, my girlfriend and I were driving across the country to move into our first apartment. She was going to start her master’s program to become an English teacher. I was going to start my sophomore year of college and continue my NCAA Division 1 tennis career. However, in the middle of our journey, we crashed. Our car rolled eight and half times. Sara, my first love, died. I woke up from my coma and subsequent brain surgery a week later in the ICU to learn about her death and the loss of my left leg. In the scheme of things, my leg was small potatoes. The hole in my heart and grief nearly swallowed me up. I missed her deeply and wished I could have traded places. I felt lost in so many ways. When I left the hospital, I couldn’t stand, let alone walk, nor play tennis. While in the hospital, I also had surgery to remove half of my abdominal muscles and, to this day, I can’t do a sit-up.
I will forever be grateful to my family, friends and healthcare providers who gave me hope, because one doctor told me that I would never walk again. During those dark days, I was paired with a service dog named Betsy the Wonder Dog. She was just that – an absolute wonder. She helped me regain the ability to walk. Her energy inspired me to take up mountain biking with her on the trails around town. Because of her, I discovered I could push myself again. I learned that I was capable of more than I thought. You see, inadvertently, I had let myself believe I was “disabled.” The prefix dis- is Latin for “not.” So disabled means literally means “not able.” Yuck. I may not be able to do some things, like a sit-up or walk without my prosthetic leg, but I am not disabled.
The words we use with ourselves and with each other are important. If I had believed that doctor, that I would never walk again, I’d still be sitting in front of the couch today.
My service dog knew how to turn on the lights, pull my wheelchair, and pick up things that I dropped. She also helped me to see myself as she did. Meaning, to her I was just a kid and she wanted to play. Because of Betsy the Wonder Dog, I again found freedom, independence, and joy on the bike. Eventually, after countless hours riding with her and other focused training, I earned a position on Team USA.
As a member of the National Team, I raced Paralympic road and track cycling events. At the London 2012 Games I earned a gold in the road time trail and a silver medal in the individual pursuit. In the Rio 2016 Games, I earned a road time trial silver and a bronze medal in the individual pursuit. Over my years with Team USA, I earned eleven world championships
After I retired from Team USA in 2017, I returned to off-road events with a desire to finish the iconic Leadville 100 and learn why everyone raved about gravel. As soon as I stepped away from the National Team and international Paralympic sport, I became an age-grouper again. When I first started my journey back into sport all those years ago after the accident, I didn’t know that Paralympic sport existed. Well, maybe I did, but I thought it was less competitive and even embarrassing to be a para-athlete. Now, with all my world championships, gold medals and a clinical doctorate in physical therapy, I can tell you with empirical certainty that people with physical impairments are not the same as able-bodied athletes. We are different, not less. Just like you, we are strong, resilient, and capable of more than we know.
We all have scars- some more visible than others and, for the most part, our experiences are more similar than dissimilar. At the end of the day, we are all part of the same human race. Let’s make space for para-cyclists to get their wheels dirty, too.
In honor of Meg’s essay for International Women’s Day, SRAM is excited to contribute $5000 toward Meg’s campaign to get more para-athletes racing gravel. This year at SBT GRVL and Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Meg will be supporting and housing several para-athletes and telling their story in order to provide better representation and visibility for para-athletes racing off-road.