The U.S. paratriathlon resident team pose for a photo on June 20, 2020 at the Colorado-Kansas border.
Olympic triathlon hopeful Kevin McDowell didn’t know any of the details when Paralympic silver medalist Hailey Danz called and asked if he’d be interested in doing a team bicycle ride across Colorado.
The ride would not only give them a reason to train in the absence of races, but would also raise awareness and money for the USA Triathlon Foundation. The foundation would in turn divide it between the organization’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, providing grants to multisport athletes impacted by the pandemic, and the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado.
McDowell said yes immediately.
“Then as I got going and learned more about it, I learned it’s going to be all night, 24 hours, and my first leg was going to be at 1 a.m.,” McDowell said. “It surpassed all my expectations. It was so fun.”
Five members of the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team — Danz, Kyle Coon, Kendall Gretsch, Allysa Seely and Melissa Stockwell — in addition to McDowell and fellow Olympic hopeful Renee Tomlin, Paralympic hopeful Jake O’Neil and elite triathlete Alex Libin, who was a guide for Coon, as well as USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris, rode from the Utah-Colorado border to the Colorado-Kansas border in 24 hours, starting on Friday night and finishing on Saturday.
They rode in shifts of roughly three hours in teams of three, taking turns pedaling while the others rode in a support van. The athletes not on shift got to follow along in an RV, getting some rest, food and hydration while waiting for their next shift.
The ride was officially called “Operation CO>COVID.”
McDowell’s first shift started just after midnight in Montrose, at just over 5,800 feet, and ended in Gunnison, at about 7,700 feet above sea level. Support staff driving behind them in a Toyota Tundra helped light the road ahead of them.
“It was a lot of climbing, but it was really cool because there was nothing,” McDowell said. “No lights. I saw the Milky Way for the first time. It was really exhilarating.
O’Neil, who’s 17 years old and a member of the U.S. development team, had a similar experience. He picked up the next leg beginning at around 3 a.m., and his group tackled Monarch Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide at 11,312 feet.
“I loved it,” O’Neil said. “It was really cool to be alone in the dark like that.”
It was unlike anything O’Neil had ever done before, he said, but Stockwell is his coach and when she asked him if he’d like to join the group he didn’t hesitate. In order to train, he and coach Derick Williamson worked on his climbing skills in Cheyenne Canyon in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His group included Harris and Tomlin, and they took broke the ascent into four-mile chunks and took turns.
“We were a great team and we worked really well together,” O’Neil said. “We really cared about each other and how we were feeling. We were intense, I’m not going to lie. We were intense about what was going on and we all got the best out of each other.”
That intensity was welcomed by all the athletes after the postponement of the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, originally to be held later this summer, as well as the cancelation of most of the racing schedule because of COVID-19.
“I was excited about having something marked on the calendar,” McDowell said. “Even just having to prepare for something again: getting your nutrition stuff out, your change of clothes, packing again for travel. I just thought it was fun to have an event of some sort again and there was sort of a race aspect because we were racing the sun. That was our thing, keeping track of the time and knowing the numbers you had to bike to be on schedule.”
The group totaled a combined 483 miles with nearly 23,000 feet of elevation gain and covered terrain ranging from the ascents and descents of the Rocky Mountains to the flat plains as they neared Kansas. They also stopped in Colorado Springs where they knelt in silence on the steps of city hall for eight minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd and in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That was very special,” McDowell said. “You go from everyone all amped and going and so many moving pieces to everyone just stopped,” he said. “That was a big moment.”
Their goal was to raise $20,210, a nod to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 since postponed to 2021, and they found out they’d reached it just about an hour before the ride started.
“We were super stoked to be able to reach it, and it was nice going into it knowing we’d already accomplished one goal, now we just have to do the thing,” said Danz, who helped organize many of the logistics along with Williamson.
She was also the first rider, starting things off at the Utah border.
“There were a few moments, especially in the first 10 miles, where I’m basically out in the middle of nowhere, the scenery is gorgeous, it’s just me and the open road ahead of me with nothing else, no cars, no other cyclists, and I was like, ‘Wow, I get to do such cool things,’” said Danz, a six-time paratriathlon world championship medalist who won silver when the sport debuted at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. “I remember being really appreciative of that during a few moments of that ride. But the real highlight was just being with the team. We’re so close and we spend so much time together that the last couple of months have been hard. Being able to hang out in the RV, laugh, poke fun, it felt like normal. It was really cool.”