Tom Davis competes in the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
The big decision never needed to be forced by Tom Davis. His choice to retire from competitive Para-cycling after a career filled with world championships medals, marathons around the world and two Paralympic Games appearances came gently from his heart.
He returned home to Indiana last August after posting two fifth-place finishes — in the road race and time trial — at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. He put his handcycle away to give himself the usual break after a hard summer of Team USA training and competition.
After a few weeks of rest, especially needed for his aching hands, he knew the truth: he felt better and was emotionally happier leaving the handcycle in the garage.
He was done, in every way. Time to move forward.
“I had some thoughts leading up to Tokyo, here and there, about me being done. But I really didn’t want to totally commit to retiring until after Tokyo, giving myself a chance to see how things went,” said Davis, a 44-year-old native of Fremont, Indiana. “I needed a break, because I was so worn out. And the longer the break went, I realized I didn’t miss the training. I would have hated to get back on the bike and do the hours again.
“My hands couldn’t take it anymore. Once I stopped, I felt so much less pain, and I really didn’t miss it. So that was the big sign: I was ready. I have zero regrets.”
In addition to the Paralympic appearances, Davis competed in four world championships, winning three silver medals.
His next chapter may again involve wheels: he has started a two-year culinary arts program at a community college in Fort Wayne. The goal is to own his own food truck, giving him the chance to serve his creations and control his schedule.
“I’ve always loved to cook, people tell me I am good at it, and it just seemed like something I felt I really needed to do now,” said Davis, who is using the benefits from his U.S. Army service to pay for school. “I just felt it was the right move, like I am pouring the same passion I had for cycling into my cooking now.”
He is only in his first weeks of classes, learning the basics of baking. So far, baking cookies and a cake has been accomplished. He is learning knife skills, mastering different types of cuts. Davis said he is the first culinary student who uses a wheelchair in the program’s history, so he is teaching the college some things too.
“It’s really rare to have somebody in a wheelchair as a professional chef, I am just learning that, but I don’t see why I can’t do it,” he said. “It’s about modifying and making things accessible. The rest is cooking and technique for everybody the same.”
He describes his personal cooking style as broad, choosing to prepare the favorites of his friends and family to make them happy. Davis noted his appreciation for tasty French fries and good tacos. Davis said his French fry snob side was developed from his numerous Para-cycling trips to Belgium, which is the home of some epic fry culture.
So perhaps the ultimate taco truck, with a side menu of well-crafted fries, is in the cards?
“I mean, who doesn’t love tacos or fries? Right?” Davis said, laughing.
Right now, if Davis was still competitively handcycling, he would be in Florida training with other members of Team USA. He misses being around his friends and teammates but doesn’t crave the long days of training.
He hopes people will remember his career less by the hardware, but more from how he treated others.
“I want them to say I was a good person, that I was there for them, that I listened when they needed me and that I genuinely cared,” Davis said. “I do not have any regrets on the bike, but I do regret the way I was in Rio (2016). I got caught up in the stress, and shut myself away from everybody, thinking I needed to be in my own head to succeed. That wasn’t true at all, and I learned from that.
“This time, in Tokyo, I wanted to be open and share myself and the experience with my teammates. It made the experience so much better. So I hope people see me as somebody who really wanted to help them when they needed me.”
In the meantime, he is juggling school, his growing family of four kids with wife Jamie and dreaming about his shift into a new phase of life. The bike may come out of storage when the Midwestern winter releases its frosty grip in a few months. This time, the riding will be for fun, and strictly on his terms.
And the popular cycling event he staged in his hometown, which brought together able-bodied and Para-cyclists from around the country in 2020, may return this summer.
“I feel like everything is where it should be right now, I am happy, I am at peace,” he said. “And knowing I am getting to study something I am really passionate about is so good.”