Going for the Gold: A Q&A with Best of USA Nominee Brian Sheridan

By Annemarie Blanco | July 07, 2015, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

Brian Sheridan, pictured above, competes at the 2014 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships. 

Twice a week, Going for the Gold will highlight a member of Team USA’s Parapan American roster leading up to the games beginning on August 7. Features will take a deeper look at a member of each of the 14 Paralympic sports that the U.S. will compete in during the 2015 Parapan American Games, held in Toronto. The fourth installment spotlights cyling athlete Brian Sheridan (Clarkston, Michigan).

What drove you to pursue competitive cycling and ultimately be a part of the Paralympic movement?

“Sports and my parents; I’ve been involved in sports since I was a child. I had a spinal cord injury when I was eighteen and prior to that I was actively involved in just about everything, but mostly basketball and football all through high school. After my injury, I became very interested in two sports: hand-cycling and rugby. Not long after my accident I discovered a sports cycle and hopped in it. I found this new freedom and sense of power when I started riding around on this hand cycle and not long after that I discovered wheelchair rugby. After that, wheelchair rugby occupied the next ten years of my life.”

Why did you transition from rugby to competing solely in cycling?

“The thing about participating competitively in sports is that you don’t generally participate forever. When you play sports as a kid then into high school and college, it starts to wean away a little. In the case of wheelchair rugby, ten years was kind of enough for me and I started thinking about what I wanted next. I started to pursue my business interests for several years before deciding that I wanted to get back on the bike and see what I was capable of doing. All in all, I was hand-cycling for about twenty years and participating in local competitions but never really committed to the sport in the way a true competitive athlete might do until two years ago. When I started to learn more about Paralympic cycling, the various classifications, competitions and advanced equipment I became hooked within two competitions. That’s where I’ve been ever since.”

Looking back on what you’ve been through, do you think sport was a way to stay positive after your accident?

It has always been. The unique thing about sport, pre-catastrophic injury or disease, is that they instill a great set of values in people from discipline, organization and fitness to working together as a team. For me, it was natural to continue to find a new competitive edge but what I really discovered in pursing adaptive sports is a new side of benefits from sport. Success was still very possible. Even the smallest physical achievement after sustaining a catastrophic injury can feel like the biggest accomplishment. I really didn’t think that I would be able to do competitive sports on a high level ever again, and in the process of discovering I could, I really began to apply that to other things in my life.”

What has been your biggest motivating force for you to continue to be competitive?

“That’s a very complex question because there are so many different motivators for me. But, the biggest thing that motivated me is having a child at a young age. After my accident, I was only 20 years old when I had my first child and I became extremely motivated to want to be as successful as possible in life and to stay alive as long as possible for my new baby. That’s been one of the primary driving forces for me. Also, my career path brought me into healthcare. As a result of my accident, I ended up pursuing occupational therapy where I was injected into the healthcare system. I went from being a patient to taking care of patients. Since then, I have worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of patients who in their various life circumstances have been individual driving forces for me. I have plenty of inspiration every day in my life.”

As an occupational therapist, do you push patients that you work with to try adaptive sports?

“Absolutely. About eleven years ago, after I started working in my field, I found that a lot of my patients weren’t aware of the various resources available to them that could make their lives easier. So, I started a company called Fusion Medical where I continue to do just that. We still push a lot of people who deal with disease or catastrophic injury towards sports as a medium for teaching them how to become successful and how to achieve. The same is true for Level Eleven Physical Therapy; it’s a direct result of my spinal cord injury, my being an athlete and learning anything and everything about our rehabilitation system in the United States. We try to demonstrate to our patients that if ten is the top, then you should always be reaching for the next level, that next goal in your life.”

You’ve had a very successful year and were actually just nominated for the Best of June Team USA award, how does it feel?

“It’s surreal. When I started this journey, I really thought I’m going to take this one session at a time and see where the road leads me. Everybody is now asking what about Rio, but honestly I don’t think that far ahead. I’m still training one day at a time and trying to get stronger and faster. As a result of that, I guess I’ve been able to accomplish some crazy things this summer. It’s certainly very humbling but at the same time, it’s all part of this journey that is long from over for me.”

What is your ultimate goal professionally?

“My ultimate goal is to get up tomorrow, get a long ride in and train for world championships so that I get on the podium hopefully at least two times if I’m in two events. If I’m in three events then I want to go on the podium three times. Then, I want to go to Parapans and do the same thing. That is as far as my goals are taking me right now.”

What do you think will be your toughest challenge to get there?

“Of all the sports that I’ve competed with in my life, cycling has been the most mental sport I’ve ever experienced. You’re not out there racing on a course with your teammates; you’re out there with you, the bike, the road and your competitors. As an individual sport, you really have to stay focused both in training and when you’re out on the road. When your body starts telling you it’s time to stop, take a break or slow down, you have to get past it and keep going. When you’re climbing a mountain in Switzerland in the rain, as was the case a few weeks ago at the world cup, you really have to wipe all of those negative thoughts out of your mind and just keep pushing. The biggest obstacle for me is staying positive and focused on what I’m trying to achieve and executing it well.”

Do you have any words of wisdom to newer athletes trying to break into competitive adaptive sport?

Like many things in life the fear of the unknown is what holds us back from making some of our greatest accomplishments. The most important thing that anyone can do is take that first step to learning about a new activity or sport and trying it. One of the great things about cycling is that there is not a huge learning curve in order to try it. If you’re going to try wheelchair rugby you might need a big fancy chair, all different kinds of equipment and have to learn a whole new set of rules. But, with cycling all you need to do is get on a bike and pedal it. The sensation that you get from doing that is really enough to get you past the first step and get you hooked to want to do more.”

Parapan American para-cycling competitions for track cycling will be held at the at the Cisco Milton Parapan Am Velodrome while road competitions will held outdoors on the Ontario Place West channel beginning on Saturday, August 8 and concluding on Tuesday, August 11. The U.S. roster includes Paralympians Joe Berenyi, Will Groulx, Allison Jones and Shawn Morelli. For more information on the upcoming Parapan American Games visit Toronto2015.org.