Before I had either, she asked me “what means more to you, winning a Paralympic medal or becoming a world champion?” It wouldn’t be until I won a world championship that I had an accurate answer for her. One I could give with complete confidence. And even then, it took time to process having won both Paralympic medals and a world championship.
At the time of the question, my heart knew the answer. “Paralympic medals” I told my friend, even though a world championship jersey is the most coveted in the sport of cycling. Having both now, I still stand by my initial answer of Paralympic medals.
I won my first world championship jersey in March of 2017. At the UCI Paracycling Track World Championships at the velodrome in Carson, CA, my home velodrome. And yes, it’s an indescribably incredible feeling to zip up a rainbow jersey on the top step of the podium at a world championships. Only to be made more incredible by being lucky enough to get to do it in your own back yard, where you call home, with friends and family in the stands watching.
The day was like any other at the velodrome. Having been going there for so long, and racing there, I didn’t feel much different. Even though it was world championships, I was treating as I would any other race. For qualifications, I knew I just had to qualify second. Being the last heat, and knowing the time I needed, I was confident I would do just that. As I heard my target lap splits, I quickly got into the same straight as my opponent. At that point, I backed off just a touch to save as much as I could for finals. When I looked up at the screen at the end of the 12 laps, I had qualified first.
In the gold medal round, I made it within striking distance of catching my opponent early. And, when the fade started, I was able to keep her in eyesight. So I knew I had won my first world championships half way through that final 3K. The only thing that kept me from celebrating the win early was the burning sensation in my legs that would only be alleviated by finishing the 12 laps. The grin on my face as I mounted the top step of the podium a couple hours later, clad in a bright white rainbow jersey, shined brighter than the both the jersey and the gold medal around my neck combined.
But it wasn’t the happiest I’ve been upon receiving a medal. No. That moment belongs to my first Paralympic Games bronze medal. I would venture a guess and say part of that is because I narrowly secured that bronze medal. In an event I never thought I would and had yet to podium at internationally. I know, though, that a big part of it was that so many people who love and support me had watched me achieve that medal in the stands, at home watching the live stream on the computer and in parking lots watching it on their cell phones.
And another big part of it was that over 15 years ago, I was a little girl who thought she had to give up on her dream of being a professional bike racer. I was a little girl who had to come to grips with having a leg that would never be “normal” again. A little girl who would end up crying at school after being picked on. Who would lean heavily on her family when she questioned why it had to happen to her. A little girl who had no idea she’d grow into a woman who could be strong mentally and physically. Who would live out her dream and be so much more than just a professional athlete.
So while it may not be gold, no medal or accolade will surpass that first bronze medal at the Paralympic Games. Where only the best get the chance to compete against each other. Because it became every moment of my life leading up to that very moment when I crossed the finish line and looked up to see I had won my round. It became every person who stood by me and believed in me even when I didn’t. And every person who told me I couldn’t do it. It became something tangible for every intangible piece of the process. Strength and determination forged into something I could actually hold in my hands.