Ambitions beyond the velodrome
Ross Wilson has developed into a key player in Canada’s paracycling team, earning medals i n Paralympic and world championship competitions. This year, he took two gold medals while setting personal best performances in the paracycling track world championships. While winters in Alberta can make getting on the bike challenging, Wilson is dedicated to his sport, logging 15–20 hours per week on his bike during the cold months with an added four hours per week in the gym. In the summer, he turns up the volume, all while working full-time as an accountant.
“I had never done it because of the Spandex. You know, a 300 lb. guy in Spandex doesn’t look great.”
How did you get started in cycling? Five or six years ago, I did a weight-loss challenge with friends and dropped 110 lb. in a year. I needed an activity that would help maintain that weight loss. I loved cycling, and have watched the Tour de France for years, but I had never done it because of the Spandex. You know, a 300 lb. guy in Spandex doesn’t look great. A friend had watched the London 2012 Paralympics, where an American named Anthony Zahn, who also had Charcot-marie-tooth syndrome, was racing. She suggested I might like racing too. I called Sébastien Travers, coach of the national team, and it all went from there.
What is Charcot-marie-tooth syndrome? The way my particular iteration of the condition works is that the sheathing that covers my nervous system isn’t being made anymore, and so signals from my brain to the rest of my body are slowing down. The muscles don’t get the signal and atrophy naturally. I generate my power through my thighs, hips and glutes, while my lower legs are atrophied. My fingers work fine, but my grip strength is low. I can’t really use my thumbs effectively. When I am riding my bike, if I go over a lot of rough terrain, my hands come off the bars. Braking is also difficult, so I have to be selective on the equipment I use.
Describe your highlights from track worlds earlier this year. The L.A. velodrome really suits guys with a lot of power, rather than leg speed, so it suited me well. I ended up doing really well and setting personal bests in both the kilo and the pursuit. It was great to see I was faster than I had been in Rio and to win gold medals in both events. The goal will be to get even faster and race against a fuller field and still bring home the world titles. What was your experience like at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games? It was really a life-changing experience. The No. 1 sport was track cycling, so when we were riding around the velodrome, it was close to full. I did my pursuit qualification, and the cheers from the crowd were just massive. It was like watching the movie Gladiator when they’re fighting in the pit and the whole area is screaming for blood. That’s what it felt like as I was pulling up on my opponent to pass. It was absolutely thrilling.
It was eye-opening to watch powerlifting, where the Iranian athlete nearly matched the world record for able-bodied bench press. It was really fun to see such amazing performances by athletes who frankly get written off by a lot of people. I was really proud of the results we had, cycling in particular. Tristan [Chernove] winning a gold, silver and bronze. I got two silvers. There’s Charles Moreau’s two bronze medals in handcycling and some other great results with the team. We proved we are still moving up in the cycling world. It was exciting.
What future would you like to see for parasports? My own ambition is that the parasport movement gets recognition as sport without the para aspect distinguishing it as separate. If you look 20–30 years in the past, there was a perception that women’s sport was not equal to men’s sport, and now that has changed a lot. I’d like to think para sport can follow that same trajectory as women’s sport.
Ross Wilson at the Rio Paralympics