Q&A: Para-cyclist Shelley Gautier aiming for another podium in Tokyo

Canadian para-cyclist Shelley Gautier. (Jean-Baptiste Benavent)

Shelley Gautier is an 18-time world champion — nobody in her sport owns that many titles. The 52-year-old from Toronto has her eye on winning No. 19 and 20 next year, too.

But first things first: This summer, Gautier is competing in her third Paralympic Games, looking for a second career Paralympic medal to add to the bronze she won in the road race in Rio in 2016. She’ll compete in the T1-2 time trial on Aug. 31 (2:37 a.m. ET) and the road race on Sept. 2.

Gautier rides a custom-built trike, and her category is for athletes with both cognitive and physical injuries, though in Tokyo she’ll also be competing against athletes with just physical disabilities.

Before she flew out to the Games, just after a heavy workout in Quebec — including 50km hill training — Gautier caught up with Sportsnet to talk about her sport, her goals and how she’s working to make cycling more accessible.

SPORTSNET: When someone asks you what you’ve accomplished in cycling, where do you even start?

GAUTIER: Hmm, good question. The most important thing is that I get out to be active, and that’s something that everyone can do. I tell people that I’ve won 18 world championships, and the next world championship next year is in Baie-Comeau, in Quebec. I want to win [19 and 20] and have it in Canada. I really like the town, and to win it for the 10th time [in each of the time trial and road race] in Canada, it’s just magic.

My mother is actually going to come so I’m going to have a fan club. I’m also the first one to win a Paralympic medal of any colour of any T1 male or female rider from anywhere in the world. I was the first.

Credit: Jean-Baptiste Benavent

What are your goals in Tokyo?

I want to ride and see if I can win a different-coloured medal. [Laughs.] The most important thing for everyone to know is that my determination, my hard work and tenacity will let me have a good race. And together we can share the results, so hopefully I do well.

You’ll be competing against not only T1, but T2 athletes as well. That’s an added challenge, right?

I’m in the T1 category, but at the Paralympics it’s a bigger category. I’m in the T1-T2 category [in Tokyo], so I have to compete against T2 people. They have physical disabilities, but I have physical and cognitive. So I might get lost where they wouldn’t.

I have cognitive problems. I have some short-term memory problems. I’m tired more quickly. When I get tired I lose my sense of direction. I’m a T1 so I’m allowed to have a following coach, so what he does is he makes sure I go the right way.

For people who haven’t seen you cycle, can you explain how you ride your trike, and what it looks like?

It’s a Marinoni trike. It has three wheels, one in the front and two in the back. It’s custom built because it has only one brake that activates three brake locations, because I only have one hand that works. So I have a special adaptor for that.

Physically, I’m like a person with a stroke. My right side doesn’t work. When I pedal it’s mostly my left foot, and if you get a left-foot-to-right-foot ratio it’s like 90-10. It’s my left leg. [Editor’s note: Gautier’s right arm and right leg are in a brace, and both are clipped to her bike to help with balance. It means gear shifts, braking and steering are all controlled by her left side.]

How did your accident happen?

It was 2001. I was with my husband at the time — we’re now divorced. But we were watching a mountain bike race and we were mountain biking, and I wiped out. I can’t really tell you much after that. I know I went into the hospital and I was in a coma for 10 days and ended up getting back to Canada before 9-11. I started sailing afterwards and did a bit of rock climbing, and decided I wanted to get back into cycling. I did lots of fundraising so I did the Ride for Heart three years after my accident.

What was life like before your accident?

I was a physiotherapist. [I] wanted to go to the Olympics and be a physiotherapist and take care of Team Canada. But instead, I went as a Team Canada member and got a medal. So it’s kinda neat, the story.

What was your first Paralympic experience like, in London?

I was happy to compete. In London it was actually T1-T2, male and females. In London they put four categories together. I’m happy that it’s just two now —  I don’t have to compete against men.

Then I went to Rio and there I won a bronze medal [in T1-2 time trial]. It was 1.6 seconds behind the silver medallist from the United States. And she’s back.

Are you one of the older racers out there?

The girl who’s won the Paralympics gold medal twice, she’s 60. She’s actually from Toronto and moved to Australia, and she’s Australian now. And she’s older than me – she’s 60. There’s another gentleman who’s 60 as well. There’s some younger people, too, but generally with para cycling, people get into it after they have their accident, so it’s not necessarily somebody who grows up with a disability.

What are you most looking forward to about competing in Tokyo?

I’m just going to go out and do my best and hopefully I can show other disabled people — adults and kids who are disabled — that you can ride a bike, a trike or a mobility device, and they can get involved and it’s a way to keep yourself happy and active.

You do a lot of work that way though the Shelley Gautier Para-Sport Foundation. Can you tell us about that?

The foundation gets mobility devices — trikes and bikes and tandems — out to people so that they can get back to normal life and they can ride.

We’ve donated some mobility devices to Brock University, and they have the Brock Penguins there. What they do is they take the trikes and hand cycles and get people active and get them to ride around and learn about how they can do it. It’s provided for them — they can use them for free. The foundation is in four communities in Ontario.

Why did you decide to start a foundation?

Because people need to know that even though they had an accident and became disabled that they can get out and they can be a member of their community. Just by showing them that they can ride a bike and they can get involved with people and they can learn about trike riding or tandem riding, they can make friends and they can be a normal person. I’m elite, but I want to encourage people to do something. Biking is a great way to get out and to socialize.

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