With two years to Tokyo, Gaertner is determined to win a third Paralympic medal and first on the bike.
U.S. Para-cyclist Travis Gaertner’s morning routine is contrastive to most.
During the week, he wakes up at 5 a.m. to train.
On weekends, he wakes up at 4 a.m. to train.
Yes, one hour earlier. On the weekends.
With two years to go until the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Gaertner’s training regimen couldn’t be more different than it was leading up to the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Games, both of which he won gold at with Canada’s wheelchair basketball team.
No longer an up-and-coming hoops player living the single life as a Canadian, Gaertner is now a 38-year-old father of three, who also works as a full-time actuary in Seattle as an American. He wakes up at the crack of dawn — or earlier — to get a two- or three-hour ride in before his kids get out of bed.
“I’ve done that for a year now, and it’s just the way I live. It requires early mornings and a lot of support from my work and my wife,” he said. “I have to be much more vigilant with my nutrition and my sleep now, because I’m stretching myself during the day to get my training in and to do a good job at work.”
It’s a far cry from 20 years ago.
When Gaertner, born without his lower limbs, first took up wheelchair basketball as the captain at the University of Illinois in 1998, he immediately became known for his speed and quickly turned into one of the fastest players in the world for Canada’s national team.
“When I played wheelchair basketball, (coach) Mike Frogley had me on full-court press almost 100 percent of the time I was playing, even if I was the only one doing it, because I liked speed so much that I needed to be moving so fast all of the time,” he said. “So much so, that unless I was on full-court press, I couldn’t focus on offense.”
Gaertner played for Canada’s national team for six years, helping the country win two consecutive Paralympic gold medals and go undefeated at a handful of international tournaments, where they crushed opponents by large margins. The team would put in three practices a day and fly to events three weeks ahead of time under the strict command of Frogley, who came from a military background.
“Mike was the best coach in the world, but he worked us so hard,” Gaertner said. “Often times, we would go a long time without a day off, and a lot of me hated that. But, one of the greatest memories I had after that second gold medal was stopping and thinking that all that hard work paid off, and Mike was an incredible coach who led us to this incredible moment. Twice.”
However, as time passed, the training was too much for too long, and Gaertner eventually traded in his basketball chair for a seat behind a corporate desk as an actuary, and he started a family.
Then, in May 2017, a switch flipped. Gaertner noticed his window as a competitive athlete was closing.
So, he decided to begin handcycling competitively after years of riding on his own for fun once every weekend during the summer months.
But with a twist.
He’d return to Para sports as a member of Team USA.
“I’m an American,” he said. “I was born in Canada, but I consider myself an American now. Despite pressure from family, who really try to tell me that I should be competing for Team Canada, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a part of Team USA. I’ve been living in the United States since 1998. I have a family here. I subscribe to a lot of the different views of the United States as it relates to global issues. I’ve ingrained myself in this culture. I’m an American.”
Taken under the wing of U.S. Paralympians like two-time gold medalist Will Groulx and Tom Davis, Gaertner has quickly become one of the best Para-cyclists in the nation in the MH4 classification. He trains alone in Seattle, spending a lot of time on his indoor trainer because of the rain, which is convenient because it keeps him close to his family.
The UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships earlier this month was Gaertner’s seventh cycling competition. He finished 10th in the road race despite crashing.
Now, nursing an elbow injury, he’s looking to get back to 100 percent in time for next season.
“I still have a lot of gains to make given that I’m so fresh,” he said. “I really want to get the injury figured out, capitalize on last year’s gains, and come back super strong.
“The idea of speed is just something that’s been ingrained in my DNA for so long, and handcyling just lends to that so well. When I had the opportunity to test myself and do well, I wanted to give this another shot. I’m not young. I’m 38. This is probably one of the last times I can try to do this, and everything tells me I should go for it.”