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Paralympic Cyclist David Berling Rides Comeback Trail All The Way To South Africa

By Doug Williams | Aug. 29, 2017, 4:50 p.m. (ET)

David Berling, pictured at the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Time Trial in Charlotte, North Carolina, will compete at his first world championships Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in South Africa.


David Berling thought his season was over.

After competing in three UCI Para-cycling world cups this year and the national championships, the handcyclist was ready to dial back a little and start thinking about 2018.

Instead, Berling decided to line up for one more race at the qualifying time trial for the U.S. national team and is now in South Africa, ready to compete in his first UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Pietermaritzburg.

Berling — a retired Air Force captain who lost his legs in a 2007 crash of his private plane — reaped the dividends from extending his season and was named to the 22-person team for the world championships.

“It was pretty much shock,” said Berling, of his reaction to being selected. “A couple of the guys I talk to often Facebook messaged me and said congratulations, and I said, ‘I still can’t believe my name was on the roster.’”

Berling, who lives in Avondale, Arizona with his wife Melissa, was excited to accept the invitation. Berling will compete in both the time trial and road race in Pietermaritzburg.

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Berling won the time trial at this year’s national championships and competed in both events in three world cup outings this year in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, where he finished as high as fourth place. Berling ranks 11th in the world this year in the H5 class. Teammates Frieddie De Los Santos and Oscar Sanchez are third and 12th.

Berling had made it a goal to ride for Team USA, but has hit some roadblocks the past two years. In 2016 he attended a U.S. talent development camp and was scheduled to ride in a world cup event in Belgium, but then suffered a setback that required surgery and a long hospital stay.

Then, in January of this year, he was hit by a car while training near his home in Avondale. He suffered eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and bruised lungs. He was back on his trainer about two weeks after that accident and back on the roads two weeks later. He won the national time trial title in the spring, yet it took a long time for the ribs to heal. Berling could feel his endurance and strength wasn’t up to par.

“About the last four rides that I’ve had here leading up to the world championships are the first ones where I haven’t felt pain in my side,” said Berling before he left for South Africa. “So I’m thinking I’m getting close.”

Berling isn’t putting to much pressure on himself for his world championship debut.

“I’m just going to ride as well and as fast as I can and see where everything shakes out,” he said. “I don’t have expectations. I would like to continue to improve where I’ve been finishing and try to beat the next guy out, keep picking off the people that have been finishing ahead of you, one by one.”

Before the crash in 2007 that required the amputation of his legs above both knees, Berling hadn’t been a cyclist. His sport was tennis, plus he regularly trained with weights and ran to stay in shape to meet his Air Force fitness standards. It was only in late 2014 that Berling took up handcycling.

His No. 1 goal had been to be picked up by the U.S. national team. Done. His No. 2 goal is to become a permanent member of the U.S. team. His longer-term goal is to qualify to represent the U.S. at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

For now, though, Berling is eager to make the most of this surprise extension to his season and wear the USA jersey for the first time.

“I said to my wife, I haven’t donned a jersey or uniform this important since I put on the U.S. uniform for the armed forces, my Air Force uniform,” he 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.