Aaron Keith partakes in a training session.
Cycling has been part of Paralympian Aaron Keith’s life for decades. As a child, he grew up racing with his older brother on BMX tracks before receiving a road bike for his 13th birthday. He also ran long distance events in both track and cross-country during his high school years, but never lost the passion for the bicycle.
“In college, I started road racing and fell in love with it,” he said.
The Woodinville, Washington, native crossed the country to race collegiately for the University of Virginia, as well as for a club team in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1993, racing at the top amateur level, he was named the Best All-Around Rider in the state of Virginia.
But in September of that year, his life took a different path.
“I was out with my road cycling team, up in the mountains in central Virginia, when it got dark and we got lost,” he said. “I ended up clotheslining a service gate out on a forest road, suffering a head injury and dislocating both of my shoulders. But the main injury I couldn’t recover from was the shattered portion of my spine.”
The violent accident fractured Keith’s 12th thoracic vertebra, leaving him with residual paralysis below the knee as well as in his hip and glute muscles. His injuries required multiple surgeries with a long road of therapy and recovery.
“It shattered like a windshield,” he said of his spinal injury. “That part of my back took a lot of the blunt force straight through my belly.”
At the age of 22, Keith was dependent on a wheelchair for a year before he gained the ability to walk again. Any hopes of continuing to compete as he had evaporated.
Left unable to ride as he had in the past, he continued to feed his love for cycling by remaining involved with those that took part in the sport. Some years later, an avenue was opened to him to return to the activity he loved.
“I still rode bikes and tried to get back into racing, but due to my disabilities I was not able to race at the same level as before,” he said. “A lot of friends still were competitive bike racers,” he said. “Through that, I found out about Para-cycling just before the (2012) London Games. I got classified and started to race bikes again.”
Keith joined the U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Team in 2013. By 2014, he had earned his first Para-cycling gold medal by winning the men’s C2 time trial by at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships.
“It’s been great and life changing,” he said. “When I got injured, I blamed myself and carried around a lot of shame because of what happened. (Para-cycling) has allowed me to heal wounds that were there for a long time and gotten me back to a high level of racing and competition.
“It does take me away from my family, however, and it is hard on them when I’m gone.”
Juggling the life of a competitive cyclist with the demands of being a husband, a father of three, and a chiropractor who owns the Woodinville Pain Relief Clinic in his hometown, Keith continued to participate in road cycling events. However, it would be another five years before he claimed another rainbow jersey.
Reclassified to C1, the 48-year-old Keith returned to the top of the podium by winning the time trial at the 2019 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Emmen, Netherlands, last September.
His second gold medal now on the resume, Keith hopes the winning ways will follow him from the road as he makes another switch for the 2020 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships going on this week in Milton, Ontario, where he finished fourth in the individual pursuit.
Keith admits that over the years his body was built more for the endurance and longer courses of road racing rather than the speed and shorter distances of track cycling.
“It’s a slightly longer event — about four minutes — as opposed to most of the track efforts, which are a minute or a minute-and-a-half,” he said.
Keith, who will also compete in the scratch, kilo and omnium in Ontario, said his prime goal is to qualify for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 and to medal.
After not joining the national team until after the London Games and not competing for his country in Rio in 2016, Keith said that medaling in Tokyo would be a perfect way to wrap up a competitive career — or possibly not.
“This is my last shot,” he said of qualifying for Tokyo. “I’d love to keep competing, but with two kids moving into their teenage years I need to help out more around the house and I also have a small business to attend to, so it is hard to balance it all out right now.
“We’ll see. I don’t want to say, ‘For sure yes’ or, ‘For sure no’ if this will be it, we’ll see how things go. If I’m able to leave it all on the table and do well in Tokyo, maybe I’ll be able to walk away feeling things are completed.”