For the first 33 years of Shelley Gautier’s life her body was the nimble, powerful and reliable vehicle she rode towards her goals.
She played varsity soccer and hockey in university, competed in mountain bike races, studied physical education and started a career as a physiotherapist. Sport was her life’s work and she hoped to one day serve in the Olympics as a physiotherapist, surrounding herself with the world’s highest-performing athletes at the pinnacle of their careers.
Then, catastrophe struck.
In 2001, Gautier suffered a severe head injury while mountain biking in Vermont. She was in a coma for six weeks, and when she awoke she couldn’t move her right side.
In the 14 years since the accident, Gautier has adapted to a very different life. She’s left-handed now. She had to teach herself how to read and walk again. What was once routine is now monumentally more complicated.
But in other ways, the Toronto native continued doing what she had always done. She got back on her bike. She started competing again. She tried her hand at para-sailing and took up rock climbing. Sport remained the centre of her life. In 2012, she reached her Olympic goal, not as a physiotherapist, but as a cyclist in London’s Paralympic Games. Last week she won her 10th straight para-cycling world title and this week she hopes to return to the Parapan Am podium in her hometown.
“I always had goals,” she told the Star recently. “I just had to change them.”
Gautier, who won silver four years ago at the Parapan Am Games in Guadalajara, is looking forward to racing for the first time in front of her home crowd. She will compete Saturday in the mixed tricycle road race and on Thursday in the time trial.
“I’m excited to have support, to have people cheer me on, and I just want to make it happen,” she said.
Walking is not easy for Gautier. In fact, the potential hazards and risk of falling can be stressful. Riding, on the other hand, is liberating.
“To move and do some basic functions is quite difficult for me, but I look great on a bike,” she says. “I forget about my disability when I’m on my bike.”
While Gautier rides a tricyle, it’s not the kind with which most people are familiar. It’s a custom-made road bike with two back wheels, adapted for Gautier so the gear-shifters and brakes are all on the left side, since Gautier cannot use her right hand. She has less movement in her right leg than her left, but she can still use the leg to pedal.
When she first picked up road cycling she got excited when she was able to reach speeds of 12 km/h; now she rides nearly 30 km/hr.
“When you see yourself accomplishing small things that are part of your goals, I think that’s very important because you want everything tomorrow. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn to be a little more patient.”
Gautier said she doesn’t “have a chance” to win Saturday’s race, which includes both men and women, as well as athletes who have less impairment. (In world para-cycling events, Gautier competes in the “T1” class for athletes with more severe co-ordination problems and loss of muscle power than those in the “T2” class. But at the Paralympics and Parapan Am Games, the two classes compete together.) Thursday’s time trial, however, is factored, so while the field is still mixed, women and T1 athletes have a more realistic shot at a medal.
Mainly, however, this is a rehearsal for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
In terms of the bigger-picture impact of Toronto hosting the Parapan Am Games, Gautier said she hopes it gives people a greater appreciation for the capability and skill of people with disabilities.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand that I’m disabled and the people I compete against are disabled, but that’s okay,” she said. “We can still accomplish great things. It’s important to understand that disabled people can do things just as well as anybody else, but we might have a different way to do it.”