Oz Sanchez competes at the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
The end of 2021 is near, and six-time Paralympic medalist Oz Sanchez calmly admits the year threw huge curveballs.
The plans he made to compete in his fourth consecutive Paralympic Games, and hopefully win more handcycling medals, didn’t happen. Injuries, other serious health issues and life conspired to keep him off the U.S. roster for the Tokyo Games.
But things still worked in a good way.
Sanchez happily watched the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics from his Alpine, California, home, cheering on his friends and competitors, while enjoying precious moments with his baby son Benicio and wife Jenny. Their son, now 14 months old, is on the cusp of walking, and Sanchez is excited seeing the progress into a toddler.
Being away for training and competition this summer and fall would have meant missing some big steps — literally. He was left to think about everything and made some big decisions about what comes next.
“I’ve competed for 15 years now in my sports career, and I am very process-driven over results. So not being in Tokyo gave me a chance to step back and look at my processes,” said Sanchez, who turned 46 on Dec. 2. “Almost all of my deepest insights have come from supposed failures, and not the successes. … This allows me to have the correct perspective.
“Did I want to be in Tokyo and do my best? Sure. But the chance to see the more gentle side of life for a little bit, being with my son and seeing his milestones, being with my wife, are also wonderful. I have no angst in my heart about what happened this year. I am really OK and looking forward to what is ahead. I am far from being done.”
Sanchez wanted to be at his best for this COVID-delayed Paralympic trials and competition cycle, building on what he learned from Rio 2016. He won bronze in the time trial but felt he could have improved his performance to win. He wanted another chance to do better.
The process analysis showed he overtrained for Rio, costing the reserves he needed to win.
This time, he was sharper in training methods for Tokyo. There may have been a bit of overtraining, less than before, but something sneakier and more challenging took him down. An undetected kidney infection, which he now knows went on for months, weakened his body for the summer.
“I now know, looking back, there were unrecognized symptoms,” Sanchez said. “It was caught too late for me to bounce back. It was a long time to get everything back. But I am getting there.”
Sanchez is staying busy off the bike. He visited the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in late October, speaking on stage to the recruits. It was an emotional, full-circle moment, as he once was like them — in boot camp looking up at an accomplished and confident speaker on stage. He delivered a message of strength to them, drawing on his experience as a Marine Corps Special Forces veteran and Paralympian.
“It was a very important moment for me, and I was very moved by it. I never wanted out of the Marine Corps, but obviously, my broken back forced that. But I have always stayed connected in the community, and now, to be back there speaking on that stage … wow,” Sanchez said. “They break you down there, and build you back up into the military framework. I remember what that was like in broken down phase, you look up at those on stage like a god.
“I gave them my message, my motto: No limits. The biggest enemy is within. I wanted them to know that and understand.”
Sanchez is living his motto, seeing his return to competitive Para-cycling coming in the second quarter of 2022. He needs to take care of some lingering ACL and skeletal issues through surgery and recovery, but once ready he said he will be back on the handcycle.
U.S. Paralympics Cycling is ready, having named Sanchez to another national team earlier this month.
“I am definitely not looking at retirement, I see things like world championships and the Paris (Paralympics 2024) in my future,” Sanchez said. “I sat on the sidelines comfortably, was patient and kind with myself. But the time is coming for me to get back into it. I am going to take it slow, give myself time to be my best, but I will be back into things for a little redemption. Count on that.”