Matt Rodriguez competing in the mixed time trial T1-2 Para road cycling finals at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 30, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Matthew Rodriguez didn’t cry, but as he moved his legs and pedaled a bicycle for the first time in years, he was overcome with emotion.
For Rodriguez, it didn’t matter that he was pedaling a stationary bike instead of cruising along the streets of his hometown of San Diego. Doctors didn’t believe he would be able to walk again, let alone return to cycling, after a serious car accident nearly left him paralyzed at age 29.
“I wanted to prove that I could do it. I missed cycling,” Rodriguez, 47, said. “I was a big cyclist back in the day, and I really missed it.”
Four years after getting on the stationary bike, Rodriguez had reached a point in his rehabilitation where he could ride a tricycle around town. It gave him a sense of freedom, and to his surprise, he has emerged as a world-class Para-cyclist and the author of a motivational book about his life.
“I was never supposed to (ride a bike again) according to the doctors,” he said. “They said I would never walk, I would never ride or go to school, anything.”
Rodriguez made his debut on the international circuit this year while competing in the MT2 classification, which is for male athletes with moderate loss of stability and function on a tricycle.
The California native earned a pair of medals at the 2019 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup in Corridonia, Italy, in May. He won gold in the time trial competition (18:38.02), and took silver in the individual road race after finishing behind only his U.S. teammate and 2016 Paralympic medalist Ryan Boyle.
Relying heavily on his faith for strength, Rodriguez continued his instant success in Para-cycling by capturing the MT2 overall world cup title.
“Oh, I couldn’t believe that. I wouldn’t believe that,” he said. “It was amazing to me.”
Fresh off earning two silver medals at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in Peru, Rodriguez will compete at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Emmen, Netherlands. The competition runs from Wednesday to Sunday.
Once unsure of how much he’d be able to move after his car accident, Rodriguez is now traveling around the world to race on his tricycle.
In his motivational book, “The Matthew Rodriguez Story: Inspiring The Disabled To Be All They Can Be,” he writes that everything he has experienced is part of “God’s plan” for him.
“If I would’ve been paralyzed, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now,” he said.
Rodriquez said he had just finished hanging out with friends after work and was heading home when a drunk driver hit him. He said he wasn’t wearing his seat belt at the time, and he got ejected from his truck during the accident.
Rodriguez narrowly avoided his spinal cord being severed, but the accident affected his balance and his speech. He often has to repeat himself or spell out words as he’s talking to help people understand him.
“I never thought this would ever happen to me. In a second my life changed,” Rodriguez writes in his book. “The same can happen to you or worse. Everything you hold dear could either be lost or changed forever. I hope you know how fortunate you are.”
Rodriguez gained his love of cycling from his family. When he was younger, he accompanied his father and his uncle on trips that were spent road cycling in different states.
Rodriguez said he wasn’t determined in the days after his accident to prove to his doctors that he’d someday be able to ride again. But then he had what he called a “breakthrough.” He was reminded of his faith, and he wanted to inspire people through his struggles.
Six years ago, while still recovering from the accident, Rodriguez started riding a tricycle around San Diego. He said he was on his trike “all the time,” spending hours every day on it.
“I could get on the bike and just go wherever I wanted to,” Rodriguez said. “It was just very, very emotional for me. It meant a lot.”
Paralympic cyclist Steven Peace, a 2012 Paralympian, eventually encouraged Rodriguez to compete in Para-cycling for his country. He began racing, and along the way, he has received Facebook messages from people who say he’s an inspiration to them.
Rodriguez said his next goal is to someday qualify for the Paralympic Games.
“That, to me, would be the pinnacle,” Rodriguez said.