One Athlete's Quest for Paralympics Success

Fresh off of placing first in his division in late June at the Pro & Para-Cycling Road National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, two-time Paralympian Travis Gaertner is gearing up to race again. He’ll be handcycling in the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships in Emmen, Netherlands (Sept. 11 to 15) for a spot in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The athlete was born without his left leg and half of his right leg and got involved in sports from a young age. Growing up, Gaertner competed in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track, competitive swimming and gymnastics. He eventually set his sight on wheelchair basketball, playing on the University of Illinois team and making his way to the Paralympics in 2000 and 2004, where he won gold medals for Team Canada.

Gaertner picked up handcycling as a  way to stay active after the 2004 Paralympics, but his path was anything but smooth. His first handcycle was stolen, and it took him a couple of years to replace. A few months later, Gaertner was hit by a car riding the replacement. Despite the setbacks he kept with it, and is now proving to be one of the top handcyclist in the world.

Devotion to Training

As he trained for the World Championships, Gaertner used one word to describe his workout schedule, “intense.” He was up before dawn, on his bike 10 to 12 hours a week, and dedicated two to three days a week to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), working virtually with a coach living in Colorado Springs while Gaertner lives in Seattle. Data from his rides was uploaded to an app for his coach to review. They talked over the phone once a week, and the coach adjusted the workout schedule based on how Gaertner responded, what the courses looked like in upcoming competitions, what his competition looked like, and where his strengths and weaknesses were.

“[Working virtually with a coach] also gets you to a point where you're accountable,” Gaertner said. “So if I go out and I just don't feel like I have it that day, and I decide to only put 80 percent into an interval, my coach knows it, he's going to see it, and he's going to comment on it."

One of Gaertner’s greatest challenges is simply having the willpower and ability to suffer through some of those interval trainings. Leading up to the games, Gaertner’s coach tested his limits and left Gaertner absolutely spent after every interval. He says his suffering level in his interval training was high, and that required a lot of mental strength.

“I try to envision the competition, envision the fact that I've decided to commit to this interval, and only this interval,” Gaertner said. “I'll give myself permission to not do the next interval. Have I ever quit and not done the next interval? No, but mentally, I say, 'I'm committing right now to this 30 seconds. That's it. Nothing else matters.’”

Recovery is a crucial part of Gaertner’s routine. He devotes 45 minutes a day to techniques from compression work to massage work to foam rolling. The 39-year-old competed in his first Paralympics Games at nearly half his age, and the training wreaks havoc on the body, so Gaertner says recovery to him is just as important, if not more important. Without that recovery he wouldn't be able to train at a high level.

Inspired to Succeed

“I'm not inspired necessarily by the person who wins, I'm inspired by the person who is working the hardest and doing their best in life," he said. 

Focusing more on the process rather than the result is also a mentality he keeps while competing.

“I don't go into these competitions (concentrating on results),” explained Gaertner. “I try to go in and say, 'This is a part of my life, I've been given the opportunity to compete, I'm thankful for that opportunity and I'm going to try to execute my race plan. If I win, great. If I don't, I don't."

One way Gaertner finds himself inspiring others is through the way he balances so many aspects of his life. He is not only a committed athlete but also a father of three and a full-time pension actuary. Gaertner simply lives his best life, leading by example for those who have incorrect preconceived notions about his ability due to the fact that he uses a wheelchair.

“I believe that we need to do the best with what we have, all of us, and I don't want to be changed,” Gaertner said. “Don't feel sorry for me. I feel like I have a very blessed life, and I've got the support of a lot of people, and I'm really enjoying what I'm doing here.”