An Old Pro, Travis Gaertner Navigates Paralympic Qualifying For A New Sport, New Country
by Santosh Venkataraman
Travis Gaertner competes in the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open on April 18, 2021 in Huntsville, Ala.
When you’ve waited 16 years, what’s one more?
That’s the scenario Para-cyclist Travis Gaertner faces as he seeks to qualify for his first Paralympics with Team USA at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials later this month in Minneapolis.
The trials were pushed back one year, along with the Tokyo Games, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while Gaertner is new to the process for Team USA, he is hardly new to competing at the highest level.
That’s because he’s already a two-time gold medalist as a wheelchair basketball for Canada, helping the team to victory in 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens. While that was a long time ago, Gaertner, now 41, has been reminiscing about what it is like to compete against the world’s best.
“A lot of memories have been coming back from the last time that I did this when I tried out for the (Paralympic) team in a team sport, how I competed within that team sport, a lot of really good memories — and a lot of confidence building, too,” he said. “Just remembering what I have gone through before, what it took to make the team, what it took to be successful at the Games, and that’s really helped with my confidence, really helped with my mindset.”
While basketball fueled Gaertner’s competitive juices as a youngster, he has been hand-cycling since 2017 — one year after the last Paralympics in Rio. He quickly established himself as a contender, joined Team USA in 2018 and won bronze in the road race at the 2019 world championships.
Gaertner has lived in the United States since 1998, attended the University of Illinois and became a U.S. citizen in 2012. He’s in a completely different frame of mind now as a husband and father of three compared to when he was young and single and playing basketball with Canada, sometimes training three times per day.
“It’s been 20 years since Sydney and 16 years since Athens, so a lot of those lessons are the same lessons I’m trying to draw from them,” he said. “It is a little bit easier in the sense that I’m at a different stage of my life. I’ve got a family, I’ve got a full-time career and I wouldn’t be able to do basketball in the situation I’m in now. The team sport requires much more time from home.”
While Gaertner isn’t as consumed by training like he was in the past, he was quick to point out how much more taxing cycling is on is body. That’s especially the case as an older athlete, and it’s given him more appreciation for his fitness levels.
“As an athlete with a disability, physical fitness is more important I would say than someone without a disability because in order for us to maintain our independence being in a wheelchair or whatever, your physical fitness has a big role to play in that,” Gaertner said.
The pandemic threw his 2020 plans out the window, although there were numerous positives. Gaertner noted that he was able to spend more time as a father, and that he felt healthier with his children at home since “the kids weren’t going to school and bringing back colds.”
The big negative was not being able to compete, especially since Gaertner is not a cycling veteran with years of experience to draw upon.
“I am fairly new to the sport. I haven’t been in the field all that much, I haven’t been in those situations in those road races where you need to learn,” Gaertner said. “Every time I go to the line right now, I learn something. And I learn a lot because it’s so new and I like to learn. I like to go out and experiment. I like to learn for myself. I didn’t have that.”
Part of the learning experience was seen in last month’s world cup event in Belgium. He said he was happy with a fifth-place showing in the time trial, but only finished eighth in the road race since some trial and error in training didn’t work out how he intended.
There’s no guarantee that Gaertner will make Team USA, with Paralympic spots limited in Minneapolis. However, he is encouraged by a strong mock trial that simulated the race course.
“I know what needs to be done, I know what my race plan is, I know how to stretch myself and identify what my limits are and I’m going to try to cross over those limits,” he said. “And if I do that on race day, then regardless of whether or not I compete at the Games, you can’t get upset. Those are the things that are in your control.”
His basketball experience gives him another advantage in that he’s used to the attention and pressure that comes at the world’s biggest events. Gaertner recalled being chased for autographs with his wheelchair basketball teammates in Australia.
“We had 12,000 people at our gold medal game,” he recollected. “So to get that experience of just the loudness of the crowd around is something I never experienced in disabled sport before. That was really different, and it required you to really focus.”