Jill Walsh is going to the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as a cyclist, and it all seems surreal to her.
She never entered a Paralympic event until 2014. Never even considered it.
Now, the 53-year-old Walsh will be competing against the best in the world in the road race and time trial, hoping to bring home some medals and just thrilled to be part of Team USA.
“I can’t even believe it,” she says, laughing. “I’m still in shock.”
Her route to Brazil began in 2013 when she took part in the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s bike ride from San Francisco to San Diego.
At the time, Walsh — a longtime runner, triathlete and retired New York State trooper who’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — was having balance issues on her bike, specifically when she had to slow or stop. On that trip, the constant stops accentuated the balance problems.
“I was off my bike on the asphalt more than I was on my bike,” she recalls.
Also taking part on that ride was Steve Peace, a 2012 Paralympic cyclist, who was riding a three-wheeler. That caught her attention. At one point she recalls hitting the ground again and looking up to see Peace comfortably perched on the tricycle, drinking from his water bottle.
When Walsh returned home to Jamesville, New York, she recalls being miserable because the effects of MS no longer allowed her to cycle. The always-active Walsh needed to be moving and sweating.
That’s when she emailed Peace to find out the details of his three-wheeler, and how she could get one. He told her he uses a regular two-wheeled bike, but converts it to a trike with a special conversion axle made in England. He offered to send her one.
“He said, ‘I’ll loan you one, but you have to race it,’ ” she recalls. “I said I’d like to borrow it, but not interested in racing.”
However, he insisted, and she eventually agreed. She outfitted her bike, began training and eventually started competing in the T2 Paralympic cycling classification in which athletes with balance issues race on three wheels in a road race and time trial.
“If somebody had said, ‘Oh, ride an adult tricycle,’ I never would have considered it and said no,” she said. But once she talked with Peace and tried it, she was off and running.
She won a national championship in 2014, and followed that up at the world championships with a silver medal in the road race and a bronze in the time trial.
In 2015 she won a gold medal at the Parapan American Games in the time trial, then won gold in the road race and silver in the time trial at the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships in Switzerland in July and August.
Walsh defeated Australian Carol Cooke by six seconds in the road race at worlds. For Cooke, a champion at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, it was her only loss of 2015.
For Walsh, it was an amazing experience.
“When I stood on that podium and I had the USA uniform on and the flag went up and they had the national anthem, I was bawling,” she said. “Just bawling.”
Walsh had been a runner from an early age. She began triathlons in her 40s, eventually completing an Ironman. But running became harder because of the MS, and she switched her focus to cycling. Eventually, the balance issues became too much.
The transition from two to three wheels took some adjustments. Making turns, for instance, requires Walsh to keep her inside leg down, the opposite as on a bike.
“The axle is rigid, so you want all your wheels to stay on the ground,” she said. “So it takes a little bit of time to learn how to ride it.”
She qualified for the Paralympic team based on her past results and performance at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, where she earned two second-place finishes.
Walsh said she worked extra hard over this past winter — where her cycling work has to be done indoors — and just had a strong training session at Colorado Springs, Colorado. She’s also been working out with a personal trainer this year to strengthen her core.
“So, I’m giving it my best shot,” she said.
Her two sons in college won’t be able to attend the Games, but she’ll have a strong cheering section in Brazil led by her husband, daughter, sister and niece.
“I have worked as hard as I can work, and I want gold,” she said of the time trial and road race. But whether she wins gold or brings back medals of other colors or none at all, she’s going to enjoy an experience she never imagined.
“Just being able to go there and be part of the team is honor enough,” she said.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 since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.