Travis Gaertner competes in the road race at the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Nearly a year after he narrowly missed qualifying for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Travis Gaertner made a vigorous return to handcycling competition.
Over three days at the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open presented by Toyota in Huntsville, Alabama, Gaertner was part of the winning handcycle relay team and placed first in the men’s H4 individual time trial and road race.
“It’s a fantastic event,” said Gaertner of the Open. “I missed Tokyo by one spot, so it was great to kind of continue training, rejigger, rethink a few things, reset myself, come back and go out strong and have a good result and start the season.”
Though physically and emotionally drained by the hard effort, Gaertner left Huntsville having been selected to represent Team USA in the season’s first two world cup events, which take place May 5-8 in Ostend, Belgium, and May 12-15 in Elzach, Germany.
“So, you leave tired, but there’s a feeling of relief and celebration in what you’ve achieved,” said Gaertner. “To be able to go there and qualify to go on to the world stage in a couple of weeks.”
The Burien, Washington, resident said he will use the two world cup events as “stepping stones” to the world championships, which take place August 10-14 in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, Canada.
“My number one goal is the world championships in Baie-Comeau,” Gaertner said. “The course definitely suits me. Last time I raced in Baie-Comeau, I won both a gold and a silver medal (in a world cup event).”
Between the two upcoming world cup events, Gaertner’s focus is on Elzach because of its time trial course, which heads straight uphill.
“Which I’ve never done, and I’m very excited to do, as painful as it’s going to be,” Gaertner said. “We’re doing a lot of repeated climbing intervals now that I’m back (home).”
Gaertner looks at Ostend as more valuable competitive experience. Though he’s a 42-year-old father of three, Gaertner only began competitive handcycling in 2017. He had won a pair of Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair basketball for Canada in 2000 and 2004 before gaining his U.S. citizenship.
“It’s still an opportunity to go out and race and learn,” Gaertner said of Ostend. “Every time I hit the start line in international competition, I learn something because I’m still relatively new (compared) to some of the more seasoned road racers.
“Elzach, I’m going to go there, and I’m going to try to win.”
Gaertner said he also believes that he could reach the podium at the world championships in his native Canada.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress since the Tokyo trials back in June,” Gaertner said. “I’ve changed up my position some. I’ve thought about things a little bit differently, and I’ve restructured my training in a way that makes sure that I stay engaged throughout the entire season.
“We’ve made some good tweaks from the training perspective. I’m still experimenting.”
Gaertner said that while failing to make the Paralympic team was disappointing, he’s focused on what he can control.
“I did what I wanted to do, using myself as a benchmark, in that race, Gaertner said. “I had a good race. I did what I wanted to do. I should feel proud of that accomplishment.”
With Tokyo in the rearview mirror, Gaertner is shooting for Paris 2024.
“Paris is the goal, but I’m going to take it really year by year and focus on the world championships,” Gaertner said. “I think that that’s really, to break it up in my mind, the right way to make sure that I stay engaged.”
If he were to get to Paris and win a medal, it would come a full two decades after he collected a gold medal in Athens in a different sport.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Gaertner said. “It would be 20 years.”
Much has changed over that time, including Gaertner as an athlete. He spends more time now thinking about training, nutrition and recovery.
“I have to spend a lot more time on recovery and nutrition than I did when I was back in the Paralympics last time,” Gaertner said. “Your body just naturally heals itself so much faster when you’re in your 20s. In your 40s, it doesn’t.
“Listening to my body has been key. I know when to back off of certain things and go harder on other things.”
He probably won’t be backing off competitive handcycling anytime soon, however.
“I’m going to want to stay physically fit, and I’m going to want to do that on a bike,” Gaertner said. “And when I get on the bike, I love it so much, I’m going to want to do interval training. I’m going to want to push myself physically.
“I’m not just going to want to go out and ride randomly. It’s just not what I’m going to do. So, if I’m going to (train), why shouldn’t I be racing? Because I love racing.”