Josh Cassidy is unusual for a man in a wheelchair: He can walk with crutches, but sometimes chooses not to.
For Cassidy, an elite wheelchair racer who holds multiple Canadian titles and the record for the fastest Boston Marathon ever, legs are nothing but deadweight.
Just having them puts the Guelph resident at a disadvantage with wheelchair athletes who have lower leg amputations. And, the more he uses them, the more muscle he builds and that adds up to even more weight for his arms to push around in a race.
“It definitely crosses my mind,” Cassidy says. “How much faster would I be?”
He means if he had no legs. If the childhood cancer that put him in a wheelchair had manifested itself differently, or if he’d come by his disability through an accident, or . . .
These are the kind of what-ifs that elite para athletes actually think about, Cassidy says, just as an Olympic gymnast might wish to be shorter or a pro ball player to be taller.
And, yes, he knows just how odd that will sound to many people.
“It’s funny,” he says, of his leg function. “In every other aspect I’m fortunate, but when it comes to racing it’s, ha, ha, a handicap.”
Cassidy’s quandary goes a long way to illustrating just how serious the athletes who have come to Toronto for the Parapan Am Games, starting Friday till Aug. 15, are about their sport.
For them, sport is not about participation or, primarily, about inspiring others; it’s about winning a gold medal. That’s what the years of hard training and sacrifice have all been for.
Cassidy was just two and a half weeks old when he had his first surgery to remove cancerous tumours from his spine and abdomen. Paralysis started in his feet and spread to his legs.
“They said he’d never be able to walk,” his mother Anne Cassidy recalls.
For the first seven years of his life he underwent repeated surgeries on his hips and legs and, each time, had to relearn how to make his body work.
“He taught himself to walk every time. He totally proved them wrong,” she says. “He was determined. There was no stopping him.”
Determined. That’s the same word his long-time coach, Amanda Fader, uses to describe the 30-year-old from Ottawa.
A few others fly off her tongue, too.
Creative. Confident. Stubborn.
His current athletic endeavour that hits all those adjectives — for better or worse — is tweaking his racing chair trying to find the perfect setup that will propel him to victory.
Perfecting his position in the chair to make the most of what he has — a powerful stroke — is one way Cassidy hopes to get faster and overcome the disadvantage of carting around those legs, tucked uncomfortably beneath his aerodynamic three-wheeled racing chair.
“He’s got it in his head that this is something he needs to do,” Fader says of the changes he’s been making.
“Maybe he’s got the golden ticket, I don’t know.”
What she does know is that he has to try.
“He has an idea of what he wants and he needs to play with it until he gets it. He’s not the kind of athlete where you say ‘do this’ and he does it, ever,” she says, laughing.
The 2012 London Games were Cassidy’s second Paralympics and, after setting the record in the Boston Marathon that spring, he was on a high and expected to win a medal at those Games.
But he got sick just before and, on antibiotics, the best he managed on the track was fifth in the 800-metre race. He was a disappointing 12th in the marathon, his signature event.
Since then, Cassidy has put a lot on the line in his quest to be the best in the world by next summer’s Paralympics in Rio.
Small changes can make big a difference in high performance sport — both good and bad. If Cassidy puts on a little extra leg muscle, for example, not only is that extra weight to push on the track, it takes up room his diaphragm needs to expand and makes it harder for him to breathe in his bent racing position.
Walking around with crutches or holding on to furniture around the house helps Cassidy keep strong core muscles, which is a good thing for wheelchair racing and maintaining his independent life.
“So I make sure I walk a fair bit, but as I get closer to the big competitions I’ll try not to walk as much, because if I can lose a little bit of leg mass that’s an advantage. It’s just dead weight for chair racing,” he says.
“That’s something I have to overcome.”
Just as Cassidy has already overcome the adversity of being partially paralyzed, he intends to find a way to be the fastest wheelchair racer possible.
That’s what has led to the constant tweaking of his racing chair. But, at least in the short term, all those changes have made it harder to race well and his results have suffered. That makes finding sponsors difficult and garners grief from Athletics Canada which, in an Own the Podium era where national sport funding comes with medals, wants to see results.
“It’s frustrating for me, too,” Cassidy says. “I like to win.”
But he’s determined to play the long game.
“I’m taking risks to go faster,” he says
He’ll get the first indication of whether his gamble has paid off when he competes next week at the Toronto Parapan Ams in the 800, 1,500, and 5,000-metre events.
“Last year was the big experiment year and this year is about refining and Parapan Ams and world championships will be the test run … 2016 will be everything dialed in, no changes, just training,” he says.
And, he hopes, winning.