Para-cyclist aims for World Championships, Olympic medal

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Aaron Keith
Courtesy Photo Pictured here in the center, Dr. Aaron Keith, DC, rides in a para-cycling event.
The gift of a Nishiki Olympic-12 road bike for his 13th birthday was a turning point in Dr. Aaron Keith’s life.

Racing became the local man’s passion, which he took up in earnest during his senior year in high school.

At that time, his biggest influence was Greg Lemond, who had made a great come-from-behind victory in the Tour de France.

Keith became more involved in the sport, racing both for his collegiate team at University of Virginia, as well as his club team based in Charlottesville, Va.

He competed in 30 to 40 events per year, and in 1993, he was upgraded to the top amateur level and won the Best All-Around Rider in the state of Virginia.

Everything was going according to plan, but it all changed on September 1 of that year.

While riding his mountain bike with teammates in the mountains of central Virginia, Keith had a terrible accident.

“I fractured my 12th thoracic vertebra like a windshield,” he explains. “I underwent surgery to repair the spine and then spent about 18 months dependent upon a wheelchair.”

He adds, “I was left with residual paralysis, mostly below my knees and hip muscles, and have to wear an ankle-foot orthotic to help stabilize my legs for walking.”

The accident inspired Keith to become a chiropractor, which brought him out to the Northwest to pursue education and training in this field.

Later, at the encouragement of one of his chiropractic patients, he became involved in Para-Olympic cycling. He explains that after doing some research and analyzing the results of past years in the sport, he felt he could compete with para-cyclists based on the speed the riders achieved in the Time Trial discipline.

One question remained. “I didn’t know what category I would be placed in due to the permanent disability I sustained,” he says. “I communicated with several para-cyclists and the national team coach, but no one could tell me with any certainty what category I fit in.”

The dilemma was all too familiar with Keith.

He was no longer in a wheelchair so he should be “normal” and be able to walk and move like everyone else.

“But, how do you explain to someone when you trip and fall down over cracks in the sidewalk?” he asks. “How does someone understand that I cannot stand on my toes or heels:”

The issue of proper placement continued until an orthopedic specialist, physiatrist and physical therapist examined Keith, and together they reached a decision regarding his classification as a para-cyclist.

Due to the neurological deficits affecting both sides of his lower extremities, he was categorized as a C1 athlete.

“This is the most disabled category that is still able to ride a bicycle,” explains Keith. “There are categories for disabled athletes who have to ride a trike or three-wheeled cycle due to extreme balance issues, as well as those athletes with more severe paralysis and amputations who use a hand cycle for competition.”

Last year, the local doctor, who owns Woodinville Pain Relief Clinic, started racing in para-cycling events.

He won all three national championship races, as well as both the time trial and road race at the World Cup event in Quebec, Canada, in July.

He notes that the data coaches and team selectors use to determine a cyclist’s placement is his/her average speed in the time trials.

In both of the above events, Keith performed well enough to qualify for the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Team.

Most of the race distances are 15 to 20 miles for the time trials and 35 to 40 miles for the road races.

“My quest involves winning world championships and an Olympic medal in Para-cycling,” says Keith. “I have to qualify each year for selection, not only for the national team, but also for the select group of riders that compete at the World Championships, as well as the even more select group for the Olympics every four years.”

He adds, “I will need to compete in at least six to seven different racing events each year that take place in different areas of the U.S. and across the world, as well as participate in training camps at the Olympic Training Centers in Chula Vista, Calif., and Colorado Springs. The time commitment for this schedule usually means four to five weeks of travel and competing away from the Seattle area.”

Currently, Keith’s training regimen involves spending an hour every weekday riding indoors and two to three hours on the weekend, either indoors or outdoors depending on the weather.

He also does strength training with an emphasis on core and postural work.

To be a successful racer, Keith notes that fitness is important, but he emphasizes that a rider also has to be able to read a race and know his/her strongest adversaries.

He adds, “You may be the strongest, fittest competitor in the race, but if you miss out on a couple of very strong riders working together, then you may not be able to catch them before the race is over. Sometimes, bicycle road racing can be thought of as a chess match while under duress. If you let your opponents take your queen early, you many never recover.”

Keith stresses the need to eat right before, during and after competition, as well as to hydrate properly due to the length of endurance required for the races.

He says, “You need to understand how your body will react to the elements, hot and cold, and you need to understand your body position on the bike — how will you be strong in and out of the saddle, in a sprint or on a climb, in and out of tight corners on a course that may or may not suit your skills.”

The first major test for Keith will be in Greenville, S.C., at a race that will determine who from the U.S. will go to the World Cup in Segovia, Spain in June.

The U.S. Road Championships in July in Madison, Wis., follow. This event will determine rider selection for the World Championships in Quebec, Canada.

Keith is determined to give it all he’s got in the hopes of attaining his goal.

“This quest is important to me on two levels,” he comments. “On a personal level, as an athlete, I want to go out and compete on the biggest stage —  Worlds and the Olympics. On another level, I want to bring awareness to the sport. Though there are thousands of para-cyclists around the world, there are only three to four hundred that compete around the U.S. I feel passionate about the sport and hopefully I will be able to inspire a few disabled, as well as able-bodied athletes, to compete on the bicycle.”

He adds, “There’s just not a lot of information available about para-cycling and para-athletics in general and I would like to help change this situation — to let disabled people know that there are ways to compete on whatever level you want.”

Keith feels he has a good chance to finish in the top three at the World Championships. He’s familiar with the course, which is a plus. “I’ve done it before,” he says, “and it’s very hilly, but it suits me. I am confident I can perform well on it.

“There’s just not a lot of information available about athletic endeavors for people with disabilities, and I want to help change this situation,” Keith explained.

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