A little over two years ago, the top officials and coaches with the U.S. Paralympics cycling team didn’t know who Samantha Heinrich was.
That’s OK — she had no idea they existed either.
Heinrich had been frustrated by pain while rowing, the sport she did in college at Central Florida, and her dad, who lived a mile from a bike trail, suggested she return to riding a bike, which she’d done a lot as a kid. She’d always been competitive, and before long, she was racing, spending most weekends riding in regional cycling races around Florida.
She was holding her own, even though Heinrich was at a physical disadvantage. She’d had part of her left leg removed as a child to deal with a bowed lower leg bone that made her legs different lengths. When she was 11, a surgery meant to lengthen her leg went wrong, leaving Heinrich with years of therapy on the limb and a leg that remained stunted.
“I didn’t even know about para-cycling,” Heinrich recalled. “I ended up racing able-bodied and dove head first into that. I was starting to do well.”
Then one day in 2012, she was at a race and some riders were watching a live stream of an international cycling event. Someone mentioned to Heinrich that she could probably compete in elite races.
“I said, ‘I’m riding a bike with a little over a leg, not even, are you kidding?’” Heinrich recalled. That’s when someone on her team told her about Para-cycling.
“I looked it up,” Heinrich said “We found a race, and the rest is history. Now, I’m fighting for a spot in Rio.”
Most of Heinrich’s big rides since then have been on a bike — but the nine-hour car ride Heinrich took with her mom after looking up para-cycling was pretty big, too. They drove to Greenville, South Carolina, not even sure if she’d be classified and allowed to race.
Heinrich not only was classified, beginning her para-cycling career, she won the women’s C-5 road race and took second in the time trial, setting her on a course that could lead to a world championship this summer — and, Heinrich hopes, may ultimately culminate with a medal at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
She now knows quite a bit about para-cycling. And the U.S. Paralympics cycling team is very well aware of Heinrich, who is a member of the national A team.
This coming weekend, Heinrich will ride in the Volkswagen USA Cycling Para-cycling National Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is expected to be a top qualifier for the United States in this summer’s UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Nottwil, Switzerland, July 28-Aug. 2.
Having experience in road and track racing before joining the national team, and racing against able-bodied athletes, is an advantage, says Ian Lawless, the high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Cycling.
“Her path was a little unique, but for us that’s great,” Lawless said. “She already had experience as a bike racer.
“She’s very focused, and very driven. She sets a goal for herself and has a good awareness of what it takes to meet that goal.”
Heinrich was tapped to move to Colorado last year to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but the cold was a problem for her leg, and her training suffered.
“It was very hard to turn the pedals over, my knee didn’t want to work,” Heinrich said. “I do better when it’s 60 or above.”
So with her coaches and Paralympic officials, Heinrich decided to move to Southern California to train.
In addition to the sunnier, warmer weather, Southern California was also home to Heinrich’s main training partner — and fiancé — Andrew Bosco.
“Being with Andrew has helped a lot with the training because it’s good stress relief,” Heinrich said.
Bosco, a Category 1 road racer, and Heinrich met at the national championships in 2013. He’s also now Heinrich’s mechanic.
In California, Heinrich has also been training with able-bodied riders.
“The best way to get fast is to ride with people and race with people who are faster than her, and she challenges herself,” said Lawless, who also noted that Heinrich is a very good teammate, helping other riders win when called on.
But while continuing to train with able-bodied riders, Heinrich said she’s often inspired by other para-cyclists.
“They go through their adversity and they make it out and they’re positive, and it’s motivating,” Heinrich said. “I’ve had my days where I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? I’ve got a maxed-out heart rate, I’m suffering like a dog. Then you go to a Para race, there are people that don’t have a leg, it just changes your whole perspective.
“Even when I have a bad day, it’s good.”
If she qualifies for the world championships this summer as expected, Heinrich said she wants to improve in the time trial. With some recent changes to her trialing bike, she feels like she’s improving in an event she’s relatively new to. She won the bronze medal in time trials last year, so a finish of second or better is a logical goal, both Heinrich and Lawless said.
Her fast rise as one of the nation’s top para-cyclists has been a whirlwind, and difficult, Heinrich said. But her training in California is going well, she’s about to get married, and she feels like she has a good shot at competing, maybe even medaling, in Rio in 2016. And considering the struggles she’s had over the years with her leg, and that three years ago she had no idea she could compete — and win — in elite events, Heinrich is enjoying the ride.
“Life’s good,” said Heinrich. “I can’t complain. I get to ride my bike.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.