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Milestone Year, Same Big Dreams For Handcyclist Oz Sanchez

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Nov. 03, 2020, 12:23 p.m. (ET)

Oscar Sanchez crosses the line to win gold in the Mixed H 1-4 relay at the London 2012 Paralympic Games on Sept. 8, 2012 in Longfield, England. 

Six-time Paralympic hand-cycling medalist Oz Sanchez has a handy explanation about why his training sessions this summer and fall may have been a little off. Sanchez, a Marine Corps Special Forces veteran who prides himself on his workouts and diligence, has been packing in life milestones this year.

First he bought a new house in June and moved to Alpine, California. The town is located in the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego County, giving him the perfect opportunity to do mountain training right out of his own driveway.

Then, on Sept. 15, wife Jenny and Sanchez welcomed their first child, son Benicio. 

Sanchez’s life is quite full of big things, between taking care of a newborn and the unpacking boxes from a big move. But his serious training mode for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021 is starting to kick in.

“That really is quite a lot of life events in one fell swoop, but it’s all good things — family and home,” said Sanchez, 44, who has competed in three Paralympic Games. “I am lucky that I really handle change well, I don’t stress out. I am a focused person, and I know what I need to do for my training, and I am getting back into that mode.”

Sanchez is a student of the human mind and spirit, trying to unlock best practices for training and achievement. He has two six Paralympic medals — two gold, two silvers and three bronze. Add in 13 medals at the world championships, and it’s clear that Sanchez has a high level of achievement since he started elite competitive road cycling.

Now, the challenges of training and reaching a fourth Paralympic Games are more about the process for him.

“Don’t get it twisted, I want to go to Tokyo and raise hell and win everything, that is who I am as a competitor,” Sanchez said. “But I have had an evolution as a competitor — why do we compete? Why do we do what we do? Why do we stick to the hustle and grind?"

“When I started, I did it to prove myself worthy to the world for love and admiration. You win a medal, you are loved. But now, I have proven to myself that I am worthy, and I have nothing to prove to anybody. I was already worthy.”

At the end of the day, I will be calm, collected and ready to go. I will be prepared for Tokyo by the work I am starting now.

The challenges he sets for his body and mind while training are strenuous: shocking his system with cold showers; forcing himself to only breathe through his nose while pushing his heart rate to 150-160 beats per minute; and working through heat to further desensitize himself. Sanchez is also watching his weight, wanting to avoid any gain through the upcoming holidays. 

“I intend to go to Tokyo and smash three gold medals, I want to be a beast,” said Sanchez, who competes in the road race, time trial and mixed team relay. “I love odds being against me, because it fuels me up. At the end of the day, I will be calm, collected and ready to go. I will be prepared for Tokyo by the work I am starting now.”

Sanchez has made a big equipment switch, now riding on a carbon fiber hand cycle. He admits he was one of the last holdouts to change from alloy to what’s now the standard material for competitive bikes. He was leery about carbon fiber, doubting it would add much to his riding. 

Now he has the answer.

“It’s taking me to another level, it was my Achilles’ heel that I wasn’t on it,” Sanchez said. “I really didn’t understand or respect how important it is to aerodynamics. I was really slow to that insight. It’s going to be a game-changer for me. I can see that already. I am going to go to another level of speed.”

Sanchez has built up strong relationships with sponsors since the 2012 London Games, allowing him in invest in new equipment like carbon fiber. He has not yet used it in competition, since the year’s slate was canceled or changed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He sees the difference in training, though, as he slices through the wind faster and can now get speeds up 30 miles per hour with less effort. 

As Sanchez ramps up his training, he has been keeping the four-time Paralympic gold medal hand-cyclist Alex Zanardi in his thoughts. Zanardi was seriously injured in June after losing control of his bike and being hit by a truck during a road race in his native Italy. He was put in a medically induced coma and underwent multiple surgeries for facial and neurological injuries.

“I think about him, his family, and just send them so much love,” Sanchez said. “I can say there hasn’t been a day where I have not thought about him. He such a stand-up guy, and he has done so much to bring positive attention to our sport. You can never take anything in life for granted. And I am not. I am focused every day to be my best at home and in training.”

Joanne C. Gerstner

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. 

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Oz Sanchez