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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Breaking Away

When cyclists with disabilities get ready to roll in next month's Paralympics in Beijing, Silver City bike mechanic Todd Anderson will have their backs.

By Donna Clayton Lawder



Perched on the couch in his Silver City living room, Todd Anderson scrolls through his computer's photo files. He flashes on picture after picture, telling the stories behind the inspiring people on the screen.

Todd Anderson will be taking his toolkit to Beijing.
(Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

One photo shows a strapping young man — a former Navy Seal, Anderson says, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident — now hand-powering on a three-wheeled "bike." The man is competing against a pair of men on two-wheeled racing bikes, both with prostheses. One lost his leg to cancer, Anderson explains; the other lost his leg in an avalanche.

In another frame are two men riding a tandem bike.

"The guy in the front is the 'pilot.' He's an able-bodied athlete," Anderson explains. "The guy in the rear is called the 'stoker.' He's the parathlete. He's visually impaired. The front guy is there to be his 'eyes,' but basically they both get up there in the saddle and pedal like hell. They're both powering the bike, of course."

The two men pictured on the tandem bike are riding along with — perhaps training with or competing against — two other cyclists. One is a hand amputee, her mechanical prosthetic lower arm attached to specially modified handlebars; the other is a knee-down amputee pedaling with a prosthetic leg.

Anderson relates the story of another athlete, who had been competing for a spot on the 1984 "regular" Olympic team, and suffered a life-altering head injury during a qualifying race. Though the accident ended her able-bodied athletic career, today she competes on the Paralympics cycling team.

Todd Anderson has these photos and knows these stories because, for a little over a year now, he has been employed by the US Olympic Committee, working as a mechanic supporting the Paralympic cycling team. This specialized job has brought him the opportunity to work with some of these determined athletes.

"I came on board just in time for the nationals in Colorado Springs," he says. "I do a lot of things. Working on the bikes, going to the training camps in Colorado, in Chula Vista (Calif.). I transport the riders and follow them in the car on training rides. Sometimes I run interference to protect the riders from traffic. Of course, I'm always doing maintenance and adjustments on the bikes."

And not just the bikes, apparently, as another photo he clicks on, captioned "Tightening Mike's arm," shows Anderson adjusting a screw in a parathlete's prosthetic arm.

"I have to procure parts for the bikes," he goes on. "In Europe (for the paralympic world trials in Bordeaux, France) I did a lot of packing and unpacking the bikes."

Soon Anderson will be getting himself packed — for a trip to Beijing, China — accompanying the team to next month's Paralympic Games, an Olympic competition for athletes with physical and/or sensorial disabilities.



The Greek root of the word "para" means "alongside," and in this case refers to a competition held in parallel with the "regular" Olympic games for able-bodied athletes. The word "Paralympics" is not intended to reference paralysis or paraplegia. The Paralympics are a competition for athletes from various disability groups: amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries and "les autres" ("the others"), a group that includes all those that do not fit into the aforementioned groups. (Competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities currently is suspended — see box.)

The Paralympic Games will run just after this summer's Olympic games in Beijing, and will have their own separate opening and closing ceremonies, Anderson explains. The 2008 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, are an international multi-sport event that will be held in Beijing, People's Republic of China, August 8-24, followed by the 2008 Summer Paralympics from Sept. 6-17. Two years from now there will be a similar schedule with the Olympic winter games in Vancouver, Canada.

With the Paralympics imminent, Anderson's work-related travel has picked up dramatically this year, he says.

"Last year it wasn't nearly as much. But this year, well, there's the Olympics," he says with a laugh. He's been to the Chula Vista, Calif., training facility twice recently, for 10-day training camps. Another trip took him to Colorado Springs, Colo., for a solid month of preparatory camp for Paralympics team selections. The teams naturally chase the good weather, working out in Colorado in the spring and summer, Anderson explains, and in Chula Vista in winter.

"I love the travel," he says. "Seeing places, meeting new people. And traveling with the athletes adds an especially inspiring dynamic."

Of "the big trip" to Beijing in September, Anderson says, "I don't really know what to expect! I think it's going to be really incredible — mind-blowing, in fact." He adds that he's glad he won't have to drive in the land of the Great Wall. "I'm sure with the language barrier — I mean, I don't speak Chinese! — it would get pretty tricky with the street signs."



Working with the paralympic cycling team is an especially good fit for this athletic mechanic. Anderson has competed in numerous bike races himself, including the Tour of the Gila locally, as well as races in Montana and California.

"I've been messing around with bikes since I was a kid," Anderson says modestly. "I worked in some bike shops, and I had worked with Chad Contreras (the Paralympic cycling team's lead mechanic) and he threw my name into the hat."

To illustrate the wide variety of paralympic sports, Anderson pops a DVD into his player. On screen, a wheelchair-bound athlete tips off in an Olympic basketball competition — tipping over in his specialized chair — then immediately rights himself and fights the other similarly chaired parathletes for the ball. Another snippet in the film shows rugby, yet another an archery event.

"Yeah, it's pretty amazing to see a one-armed person shooting a bow and arrow, isn't it?" says Anderson.

Other clips show an armless woman competing in the Paralympics equestrian event, cuing her horse with her seated body language and special reins attached to her stirruped feet.

Anderson explains that while athletes with cerebral palsy have their own category, there are times when athletes with multiple disabilities compete against each other. This is illustrated poignantly in the movie's segment on the paralympic swimming competition. In one lane, an athlete paralyzed from the waist down hoists himself from a chair to the pool's edge, then into the water. Several lanes down is a swimmer who appears to be blind and who has another unidentified disability affecting his coordination. The starting gun fires, the racers are off, and it becomes apparent that two one-armed parathletes are competing in other lanes.

How, one wonders, do these athletes with such a range of disabilities and circumstances get matched up for competition — a competition that's, well, a fair measure of their abilities? How do the Paralympic Games avoid an "apples and oranges" scenario that might give one parathlete an advantage over another?

"It's not cut and dried," Anderson allows. "Doctors have to evaluate the athletes, determining things like how much mobility they have in their hands, if they're visually impaired and paralyzed, if they're an amputee. There are a lot of things that come into play."



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