Jonathan Copsey was a rodeo cowboy before he was a U.S. Marine, and then turned into a self-described distance-running Forrest Gump before he ever climbed on a bicycle.
So becoming a world-class cyclist was never a goal.
In fact, when a retired U.S. Marine at Camp Pendleton near San Diego tried to get Copsey to start cycling in 2010 after he had taken up ultra running in the aftermath of a severe car accident, Copsey said he wanted nothing to do with it.
“I was like, ‘No way, man. I’m not going to strap on some spandex, sit on a seat and pedal. I’d rather just run,’” Copsey said, recalling the conversation with a laugh.
A little more than three years later, Copsey — the accidental cyclist — has won four Para-cycling national championships and is now in Canada looking for his first medal at the International Cycling Union Para-cycling Road World Championships.
Wearing spandex, it turns out, hasn’t been so bad.
At the recent U.S. championships in Madison, Wis., Copsey won his third consecutive road racing national title and added his first time-trial title. He is scheduled to compete in both events this week at the world championships in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, and hoping for a better outcome than his first trip to the worlds in 2011 in Denmark.
Coming off his first U.S. title that year, he crashed in the time trial and finished sixth in the road race.
“I finished,” he said of the time trial. “I didn’t finish last, but pretty close.”
With two years to think about it, Copsey, 27, is eager for a better showing this time around.
“Most definitely,” he said. “Oh yeah.”
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Copsey competed in rodeo in high school and also at Feather River College in Quincy, Calif. His goal had been to “ride bucking horses for a living.”
But after some time in college, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. At the time he was working in construction and doing “some cowboying work here and there” around Carmel Valley, Calif., where he grew up.
He felt compelled to enlist.
“I always had a sense of wanting to earn my right as an American, even though I am an American,” he said. “I just had this guilt that I always want to earn my right. So I walked into the recruiting office and pretty much said, ‘Sign me up. I’m here to do it, no ifs, ands or buts.’”
But while Copsey was stationed at Camp Pendleton in 2008, he was severely injured in a car accident on Interstate 5. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that still plagues him with chronic migraines and short-term memory loss. He also has nerve damage on the right side of his body that inhibits his strength and motor skills. In addition, he suffered damage to his vestibular system (inner ear and brain) that impacts his sense of balance.
To those who meet him, Copsey, looks like an ordinary, healthy young man. But inside, he is still dealing with physical damage that may never get better. He’s been told, however, that his short-term memory may improve.
Because of the injuries, Copsey competes in the C-4 Paralympic category, a class that also includes below-the-knee amputees. Although he doesn’t have the visible injuries of some of his teammates and competitors — often he said people will ask, “Well, what’s wrong with you?” — the U.S. Marine Corps veteran is dealing with a host of challenges.
“My motor skills are pretty shot,” he said. “Some are more minute than others. Some smaller problems. But smaller drops fill a bucket just as big.”
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After the accident, Copsey wasn’t allowed to drive, so he started running.
“I was kind of like Forrest Gump in how I just started running everywhere,” he said. “And I really did. It was too long and too expensive to take the bus everywhere, so I ended up running everywhere. Before I knew it I was running pretty long distances and running races.”
Eventually, though, the U.S. Marine who had gotten many of Copsey’s mates at Camp Pendleton in the Wounded Warrior Battalion involved in cycling — hooked Copsey, too. In a short span, Copsey threw himself into the sport, taking long-distance rides arranged by the Ride 2 Recovery Foundation (which works to get wounded veterans into cycling) and riding in the annual Race Across America.
Mike Durner, the military cycling coach for the U.S. Paralympics program, met Copsey on a Wounded Warrior Ride, and soon persuaded Copsey to enter the 2011 national championships.
Copsey had no idea how he would fare against the nation’s best, and admitted he was a bit intimidated at first. When he won the road race, he said he was shocked. Then, he won again in 2012.
Now, as he prepares to ride in Canada this week, he still sounds a bit surprised he’s done as well as he has in a sport that seemed to pick him. And, he believes if he can continue to improve, he will have a chance to compete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
Mainly, though, Copsey is grateful that so many people led him to cycling and the national team.
He feels a sense of camaraderie with his teammates on the national team and those of his cycling team, Wired Athletes, composed of mostly military veterans. As he talks about his cycling career, he laughs frequently, and said how much fun it was to help Scott Martin, his Wired Athletes teammate, win the national championship in the criterium. When he is not training, he spends time with his girlfriend and plays the guitar, banjo and harmonica.
Plus, he likes to “shake and bake.”
Look up his Twitter account and you will see a photo of actors Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly from the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” one of Copsey’s favorites. In that movie, that was the catch phrase of Bobby (Ferrell) when it was time to get serious down the stretch of a NASCAR race.
“One of my friends, Gary Hanson, who is head of Wired Athletes, him and me would always be like, ‘Shake and bake, man, shake and bake,’” Copsey said.
This week in Canada, Copsey’s hoping he and his U.S. teammates will shake and bake on their bikes.
“Not only myself, but a lot of people on the team, we’re getting faster and faster and all the countries are definitely noticing,” he said. “We’re not staying stagnant, we’re getting better, which is great.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.