U.S. Army veteran Shawn Morelli is an emerging star in the para-cycling world. She competes this week for Team USA at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Greenville, South Carolina.
Shawn Morelli laughs, then pauses for a few seconds to think, when she is asked why she has clicked so quickly as an elite cyclist.
She is on a major wave of success, having taken the overall world cup (C4) title at a UCI para-cycling world cup event in Segovia, Spain, at the end of July.
Morelli, 37, won the time trial and was second in the road race. She will be one of the favorites in the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships, which started Thursday and continue through Sept. 1 in Greenville, South Carolina. (The event will be streamed live Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 on USParalympics.org.)
“Are you sure I really am good at this?” Morelli said, laughing. “I feel like I am still learning, still have so much to grow and figure out. Every time I race, I learn a new lesson. So I guess it’s good that I can have some medals while I am learning.”
Morelli’s strong sense of humor and humility can’t submerge the truth: she is an emerging American star in para-cycling, and her growth places her on a potential path toward the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
Morelli’s move into the world of para-cycling is a nice chapter to a story rooted in pain and conflict. She was in the Army, deployed as an engineer officer in Afghanistan in 2007. Morelli was seriously injured by an improvised explosive device, and had her life changed. The blast left permanent injuries, blinding her left eye, damaging her neck and nerves, and giving her brain trauma.
She struggled to heal and find ways to help strengthen her mind and body. A 2009 trip to a local bike shop, and exposure to competitive cycling at the 2010 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, helped her get into cycling.
Her bike training has strengthened her body, giving her better balance to counteract her visual limitations and physical imbalances. She credits her personal coach, Ryan Ross, for helping her learn to be a better cyclist — on and off the bike.
“I went from 183 pounds four years ago, now down to 125, because I am taking care of myself to be better at this,” said Morelli, who hails from Pennsylvania, but now lives and trains in Leavenworth, Kansas. “It’s been life-changing. A lot of the changes have been mental, learning the mental game. My coach has been helping me change; stay calmer while racing, not panicking, coping with things changing around me, and staying focused.
“I am learning how to deal with challenges, from my body, or from racing. I don’t know what my potential is, or how far I can or will take this. I am going to keep going for as long as I can.”
Morelli excels at time trials, channeling her intensity into a challenge against herself. Road races are a bit more nuanced, as she is still learning the tactics and ways to handle the team-oriented phases.
In time trials, it is simple: It’s Morelli, her bike, the road and the clock.
“It’s like a race against yourself — what can you do?” Morelli said. “I just want to crank, go, go, go. My coaches hammer home, ‘Hold back,’ they make me say that three times, because I just can’t burn myself out so quickly. I have learned that. You’ve got to have something left at the end.”
Morelli rose to the rank of major in the Army, then transitioned into being an athlete through the Warrior Transition and Warrior Games programs. She’s working on a Ph.D. in public and community service, but her studies and dissertation are on hold while she pursues elite international racing.
The UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships will be a special event for Morelli, as her parents, David and Jacque, younger sister Dawn, and nieces and nephews, are coming from Pennsylvania to watch her race.
Morelli’s husband, Army Maj. Carl Dick, will be cheering from afar, as he is deployed in Afghanistan.
“I think that’s what is going to be even more special about worlds, that my family will get to see me race, that means so much to me,” Morelli said. “Having them all there is so exciting onto itself. My mom’s over the moon, and my dad is acting all cool about it — but I know he is excited too.
“I want to do my best, and we will see what happens.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.