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Why Paralympian Billy Lister Says His Stroke “Was The Greatest Thing That Ever Happened To Me”

By Karen Price | May 16, 2019, 12:02 a.m. (ET)

Billy Lister competing at the 2018 road world championshipsBilly Lister, pictured at the 2018 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships, competes this week at the second world cup stop of the 2019 season in Ostend, Belgium.


Billy Lister describes his Team USA journey as happening at light speed, and it’s certainly hard to argue with the assessment. 

The Paralympic cyclist had his first international racing experience in 2015, he said, later qualified for the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and then competed in one of the biggest sporting events on earth, all in a relatively short period of time.

When it comes to his Paralympic career, however, he’s in it for the long haul and already eager for his next shot in 2020.

“I feel personally that I’ve come to a really positive place in my life and athletic path in this journey,” said Lister, who will turn 37 on May 23. “I really feel confident that I’ve set myself up to be successful as Team USA approaches these next 14 months between now and the (Paralympics). The pressure is building, but that’s exciting because that’s what we want. As athletes, that’s what we live for.”

The Para-cycling world cup season just got underway in Corridonia, Italy, where the U.S. won seven gold, eight silver and four bronze medals and currently sits in third in the UCI rankings behind Netherlands and Italy. Lister wasn’t a medalist, but he was looking forward to the world cup this week in Ostend, Belgium, where the pancake-flat terrain suits his “put your head down and go straight as fast as you can” mentality in the time trial, his strongest event. He took third in the time trial last season in Ostend. 

As important as the world cup races are, however, Lister’s primary goal is to be on the podium, hopefully twice, at the world championships later this season. Lister has been so focused on performing well this year, helping Team USA to take as many athletes as possible to Tokyo in 2020 and launching into that all-important year on a high note that he opted to skip the track cycling world championships this year in order to better prepare for the road season.

“It was really about just recharging physically and mentally and coming into this season really good, feeling great and chomping at all the bits to get the racing underway,” he said. “It was really exciting last weekend to get that first race under my belt and now I’m really looking forward to taking those performances and turning them into podium performances and doing the best that I can for Team USA.”

This year has implications for Tokyo in 2020, Lister explained, because the U.S. is trying to accumulate as many points as possible in the world cups and world championships races. The more points they have, the more slots will be available for team members to compete at the Paralympic Games. 

The most points are available at the world championships in Emmen, Netherlands, in September, he said, and that’s where he’s focusing his energy this year. In 2018, Lister was fourth in the time trial and ninth in the road race at the world championships, and the year before that, he took bronze in the time trial. 

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“Personally speaking, I’m putting my full force and everything I have into preparing for the road world championships,” he said. “It’s one of the most important races of the quad outside of the Games and I’m putting everything I have into that race in the hopes and preparation for coming home with two medals: one in the time trial and one in the road race, with the goal being to get the best possible color in both of those medals.”

It wasn’t even quite eight years ago that Lister got on a bike for the first time since he was a teenager, attending a paratriathlon camp for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

The Cold Spring Harbor, New York, native underwent surgery to correct a rare and acute brain abnormality known as an arteriovenous malformation — or AVM — when he was 16 years old. Although successful, he later suffered swelling in the brain that led to the loss of some function on his left side, and then at the age of 17 he endured a stroke. 

He now serves as a spokesman for the National Stroke Association, American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. May is National Stroke Awareness Month in the U.S., and it’s a topic about which Lister is understandably passionate. 

“I always say, and tell other stroke survivors, that my stroke was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I’ll tell that to a room full of people and when they hear that it tends to change their perception and the way they view stroke, whether it happened to them or maybe a son or daughter, father, uncle, brother, sister.”

The fact that experiencing a life-changing stroke doesn’t mean the end of one’s life is one message Lister tries to convey when speaking to other survivors and families about his own experiences. 

The other message is to just say yes.

“I found that for such a long time I was wading through life after my stroke,” he said. “Granted, I was just a teenager, but over the next decade I found myself saying no a lot. I shied away from things and I really missed out on a lot of experiences. Once I started saying yes to everything, no matter what, that’s what opened a lot of opportunities for me that I’m so lucky to have in my life right now. A stroke can really turn your life completely upside down until you realize that you can just switch the glasses and the lenses you’re looking through.

“It’s difficult to change the way you view life, but once you switch lenses it becomes a lot easier and clearer, and I can speak from personal experience that it becomes a lot more fun.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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