Jill Walsh rides up the California coastline in a pack of cyclists.
The beautifully rugged ocean coastline of California rolled past to Jill Walsh as she pedaled away for a week in mid-October. It was a familiar and comforting sight, even though the three-time Paralympic medalist normally does her leisure riding around her upstate New York home.
This special trip, the annual Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) Million Dollar Ride, takes cyclists of all abilities on a 640-mile trek from San Francisco to San Diego. Walsh holds a special place in her heart for the ride, which she has now done six times.
It’s a moment to share in the joy of being on a bike, riding with friends and soon-not-to-be-strangers, and raising money for a foundation that helps so many Para athletes.
And coming off winning bronze medal in the road race at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Walsh was ready to enjoy being present and laughing on her bike. No stress. Just fun.
“The camaraderie is everything, You have 125 able-bodied riders and 25 of us who are disabled, and we just go,” Walsh said. “You feel such a thrill because it is a special ride for such an important foundation. I look forward to it each year. It’s a highlight.”
The ride is a major fundraiser for the non-profit group. Walsh doesn’t do every mile of it, picking and choosing her daily durations. The inclines can be taxing, so she plays it smart by taking transport when needed.
Walsh, a former triathlete who transitioned to Para-cycling due to her multiple sclerosis, has been involved with CAF since 2013, when she applied to be a Para athlete in their sponsor program.
She did her first Million Dollar Ride that year and remembers the experience as bruising but life changing. Still newer to the sport, Walsh hadn’t yet discovered the three-wheeled trick so took on the challenge using a two-wheeled bike. It proved to be not optimal.
Her MS, then the relapsing-and-remitting form, made her somewhat unbalanced in stopping for traffic. The ride takes place on open streets, bringing close-by zooming cars, trucks and pauses for traffic lights. She was used to just riding, without stopping, back home in New York.
“I was falling, and falling, and falling, every stop light, fall,” Walsh, 58, said. “It was so bad. But that was also the first time I saw somebody on a three-wheeled bike. I would never thought that existed, but there it was … you could not have told me to use a three-wheeled bike before that. …And by the next year, I was on a three-wheeled bike and won my first national championship.”
In 2016, Walsh made her Paralympic debut on the trike, winning silver medals in both the road race and road time trial. Her second Paralympic Games experience proved more difficult. Walsh’s MS is progressing, giving her additional challenges on top of the tough Fuji International Speedway course and the elite competition. Plus, the neurological disease made her particularly affected by Japan’s stifling heat and thick humidity.
“Japan was beautiful, and the people were very welcoming, but the weather was so tough to deal with,” Walsh said. “I really have mixed thoughts about the Paralympics. It was so hot and humid; I couldn’t even get a lap around the Mt. Fuji track during training. I could not breathe. I could not function. It was so hard on me. Thankfully, the weather gods changed during the race days, and it was cooler and rainy — like a torrential downpour. That was better than the heat and humidity. But I did it. I came home with a medal.”
Walsh is getting back into training, now shifting to indoors riding because of winter’s approach. She is looking ahead to 2022, wanting to keep competitively cycling and winning medals.
“I’m going to do this as long as I can, I don’t know what is ahead for next year yet, but I definitely still love cycling, so I am here,” she said.