Two-time Paralympic gold medalist Shawn Morelli can clearly describe what her life was supposed to be like in 2021. She would still be on a bike, but now, as a retired champion.
No more training, no more racing. Her riding would be solely for fun, toward her goal of cycling in every U.S. national park with her husband, Army Lt. Col. Carl Dick. The adventure would see them both retired from the military — he is still serving — and cruising around America in an R.V.
It’s a sweet life, and one that will happen for Morelli and Dick. Eventually.
But for now, thanks to the postponement of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 to this summer, Morelli is still in full training mode for six more months. She won gold in the Paralympics Rio 2016 in the road time trial and track pursuit events, and maintained her standing as one of the world’s best. Her chance to pick up more medals has been delayed, but the dream is not dead.
“It’s life, right? You can’t always count on things happening in the order you think they will,” Morelli said. “I thought about what I should do after we found out about the Paralympics, and I decided to make a run for Tokyo in ‘21. We’re back to training full-time, putting in the hours.
“I still like to ride my bike — nobody is having to tell me to get on the bike and work. That is a huge asset. I would do that anyways. I never felt like I didn’t have something to look forward to after Tokyo was changed. That never crossed my mind.”
Morelli, 44, looked ready to go early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic altered everything. At the UCI Para-cycling World Track Championships in late January, she won bronze in the individual pursuit, and placed fourth in scratch, fifth in omnium and 11th in time trial.
Since then, she hasn’t been able to train much on a track but has been able to log a ton of road/trainer time at her home in Leavenworth, Kansas.
“I really feel like I am in good shape. I just did the best power test with my coach that I have ever done,” Morelli said, citing a type of riding test that measures different strength and output profiles. “I really feel like I am going in the right direction. I am giving it everything. If I get selected, I get selected. And if I don’t, I know I gave it my all. We have a lot of really strong women on the team and there are no guarantees. You have to earn your spot.”
As the calendar flipped to 2021, Morelli changed her training from tempo work to building. She will compete in mid-April’s U.S. Para-Cycling Open road races in Huntsville, Alabama.
No matter the outcome this year, Morelli knows that by the early fall, she will be a retired Paralympic champion. She wants to coach and is working on the licensure process and a certificate in nutrition. Morelli, a retired Army engineer officer who was seriously injured by an IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2007, has set her life priorities in a clear mantra: do good and have fun.
“I know others may feel pressure about getting to Tokyo, but I really don’t,” she said. “The pressure came off sometime last year. My family’s health is way more important than any Games, and kind of medal. My family won’t be in Tokyo to see me, because my mom is immunocompromised. For me, my family is always more important than my bike.
“To me, I’ve had the realization that this is just a bike race, it’s what I do, it’s not who I am. It’s just a small part of my life, and soon, it will be in the past.”
Still, Morelli is proud of what her Para-cycling career has produced: 16 World Championship medals (12 gold), a world record, and of course, her winning performances in Rio. She said cycling has given her so much, from physical to mental strength, which is why she seeks to give back during the next phase of her life.
“It’s about enjoying life. Cycling is not all about racing and stressful goals — it is about the experience,” she said. “That’s why I have no stress. Somebody asked me recently why I am not stressed about this, and I said the only stress I have in a race is making sure I can clip in and not miss the start. Stress — real stress — is rolling into combat with 100 of other peoples’ children, when you are responsible for their lives and well-being. Right?
“The bike brings me joy. And there is a time for everything. I am really ready for my next adventures in life and seeing what fun I can have.”