Putney woman rides wave of support to Paralympics

Wednesday August 8, 2012

PUTNEY -- In June 2011, about a month after deciding to get back into competitive handcycling, Alicia Brelsford Dana traveled to Georgia to race in the national championships.

"I got totally creamed by everyone," she said. "And I realized my bike was outdated."

To make matters worse, that same bike was stolen the following month.

But Brelsford Dana -- who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1986 fall -- allowed none of that to slow her down. In fact, with plenty of help from friends and family, she has excelled and will travel to London later this month to compete in her first Paralympics.

"I feel like I've been riding this wave of an entire community behind me," she said.

Brelsford Dana's journey begins today, when the Putney resident is scheduled to depart for Southern California to participate in a training camp. She'll then return to Vermont for a week before flying to London, where the Paralympics begin Aug. 29.

Such a trip may have been difficult for Brelsford Dana to imagine last summer.

She had been a top handcycler a decade earlier, when she won a spot on the national team and placed fourth in the world championship in Germany. And, after taking time off to raise her daughter, she traveled to Colorado in 2008 to take part in a national cycling event.

But Brelsford Dana said she entered that event on a whim after receiving encouragement from a friend. At that point, she had no intention of returning to regular competition.

"That was a one-shot deal," she said. "I didn't even think about racing for another three years."

In May 2011, she caught the racing bug again after participating in a Burlington handcycle marathon.

"I did well. I won for the women," Brelsford Dana said. "I just had fun doing it. It made me feel like now was the time."

After looking up handcycling's competitive schedule online, "I realized that national championships were a month away."

She didn't hesitate to enter, but the results were disappointing. Then came the loss of her bike in July 2011: Brelsford Dana was forced to leave it by the side of the road due to a flat tire, and the bike was gone when she returned.

The Putney community, however, rallied for her and organized an aggressive, successful fundraiser that allowed Brelsford Dana to buy a state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber handcycle.

"They did it. It was amazing," she said. "They raised $10,000 for me in just a couple months. It actually cost $11,000, because I had to get it shipped from Europe."

Brelsford Dana got her bike in November, did some ski racing over the winter and started bike training again in February. She also had the benefit of participating in a Colorado training camp in September.

"It was a great experience, and I met the man who was to be my future coach," she said.

It all paid off in April, when Brelsford Dana raced in Montreal and made the national team.

"It felt like a huge accomplishment for me," she said. "It meant that I had climbed my way back to where I was in 2001."

There still was the challenge, though, of qualifying for the Paralympics. And Brelsford Dana would have just one chance to do it in one race in Georgia, where she had lost badly in 2011.

"I wasn't quite sure what my chances were," she said.

She made the cut, setting up the trip to London where an estimated 4,200 athletes from 165 countries will compete. According to lists released Monday by the United States Olympic Committee, the U.S. Paralympic team has 227 members including 17 cyclists; Brelsford Dana is the only Paralympic athlete from Vermont.

The single mom has been doing her best to juggle life and training, following a strict routine that includes workouts of one to three hours per day, six or seven days a week.

She rides and hits the gym while also setting aside time for preparation and recovery. Her coach, Jim Cunningham of Greenville, S.C., has provided valuable guidance since the spring.

"He sends me workouts, and I just follow his regimen," Brelsford Dana said.

As the games approach, she admits to feeling a bit overwhelmed at times and worries about falling short on the international stage.

"I'm thinking, me -- an Olympic athlete," she said.

But she leans heavily on a support network that includes her family and other enthusiastic backers who help her with health issues, daily responsibilities and workouts.

Brelsford Dana said Putney's West Hill Shop is sponsoring her, and she credits the staff of Supreme Fitness in Brattleboro for being "incredibly supportive." Also, she has received grants from Northeast Disabled Athletic Association and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

In the end, though, it will all come down to Brelsford Dana's bike, her skill and her will. And she has plenty of experience to draw from.

"I'm trying to view it as a race like any other," she said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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