Like most athletic children of a certain era in Putney, Vt., Alicia Dana grew up cross-country skiing. She learned the ropes from the legendary John Caldwell, a Putney School coach who went on to lead the U.S. Ski Team, and took up racing at an early age.
It wasn’t long until Dana, formerly Brelsford, developed an affinity for other sports as well. By the time she was 16, she had competed at two cycling nationals and become a repeat contender at cross-country Junior Nationals. The next year, however, an accident changed her life.
At age 17, Dana fell out of a tree and was paralyzed from the waist down. Twenty-six years later, she’s still in a wheelchair, but has greater athletic aspirations than ever before.
In less than two weeks, she’s headed to London for her first Paralympic Games. Dana, 43, is one of eight women on the U.S. cycling team and one of three competing in handcycling with a recumbent bike.
“I remember as a kid dreaming, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go to the Olympics someday?’ but I feel like that was a completely different me back then, able-bodied and not having any idea what was in store for me in life,” Dana said in a phone interview on Aug. 3.
She laughed as she thought about her current self, a paraplegic with an 8-year-old daughter, preparing for the Paralympics. As a child, she could not have fathomed it.
What’s even more, Dana could potentially make the 2014 Winter Paralympics as well if she sticks with skiing.
Last season, she jumped back into sit-ski racing in earnest, starting with a gold and a bronze at U.S. nationals in Rumford, Maine. From there, she earned a trip to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cups in Minneapolis and Cable, Wis., where she represented the U.S. and used her new custom sit-ski.
In the Midwest, Dana finished seventh twice and placed ninth in two other races, and was consistently the top U.S. woman. Her results spoke for themselves, and in late June, U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing selected Dana to its development squad.
According to High Performance Director John Farra, Dana met the team’s “emerging” or development criteria by finishing better than 25 percent back in one of the World Cup events.
She made the D-team with Kristy Vaughn and Augusto Perez, and could potentially elevate herself to the national team’s A- or B- standards, which currently provides a higher level of support to six others.
In an email, Farra described the program as fluid and wrote, “athletes can be advanced at any time up to the National Team (given they meet criteria), and in addition, we can choose to invest in anyone we want for any particular project (camp or competition) based on their commitment, performance, & potential.”
Given what he’s seen in Dana so far, he thinks she could reach the next tier. Before she won a national title in the 6-kilometer distance event last January and placed third in the preceding 5 k, Dana had not skied yet that winter. In fact, she hadn’t planned on racing in Rumford.
An email from her coach at Northeast Passage, an adaptive-sports program out of the University of New Hampshire, brought the championships to her attention.
“I came across one of the emails that [Cathy Thompson] had sent, that nationals were that week,” Dana said. “I was like, Oh my God, I’ve gotta go to nationals!”
It wasn’t before the reality of logistics set in. A single mom who lived several hours from Maine, Dana needed to make arrangements for her daughter, Willa. She also had to figure out how to get there, where to stay, and whether it was all worth it.
Her good friend Amy Caldwell, who was already in Rumford at the time, convinced her it was.
“I remember talking to her on the phone and she was like, ‘Get up here, just come!’ ” Dana said. “It was a combination of her encouragement and John Farra; he was going to be there so I suddenly realized there’s more structure to this whole thing … sounds like there could be some good competition and I should really just go and check it out.”
Getting Back on the Bike
About six months earlier in the summer of 2011, Dana had a similar internal conversation and ended up competing at the U.S. Paralympics Road Cycling Nationals in Augusta, Ga. It was her first time back on the handcycling scene since taking nearly a decade off to raise her daughter. A national criterion champion in 2001, she had her daughter a few years later, when handcycling became an Olympic sport in 2004.
When Dana returned to racing last year after going through a divorce, she had the same bike – which by now was painfully outdated.
“It was the biggest race of the year, and I got totally, totally creamed by everybody,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, now I know what the competition is and what I need to do,’ and it motivated me to really start training. I decided to take the next year and just train as hard as I could.”
That summer, her bike was later stolen when she got a flat and had to leave it on the side of the road. Public outcry in newspaper articles and on websites led to the bike’s return about a week later, but by then, the Putney community had already helped Dana raise some $10,000 dollars for a new one.
She used that money and a few grants from nonprofits like the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association to buy an $11,000-dollar Carbonbike designed by a handcyclist in Switzerland. The man who sold her the bike, Ken Bestine from Bike-On.com, offered to coach Dana informally, and the two worked together for a few months.
This past April, Dana tested her training at a cycling race in Montreal, where she made the U.S. team standard in a time trial. Suddenly, she was on the national cycling squad and faced the possibility of making the Paralympics a few months later.
Her national-team status and accompanying funding allowed her to hire a coach, and she chose Jim Cunningham from Greenville Cycle Center in South Carolina, who has worked with able-bodied and disabled athletes across the country. After a month of training with him, Dana and her housemate drove to Augusta in late June for another shot at the U.S. road cycling championships and a trip to London.
“There was one slot that was still open for all the women Paracyclists across all the different categories,” Dana said. “So I was, in a sense, competing with all the blind athletes, the amputee athletes, and managed to get the fastest time.”
One woman, Muffy Davis, beat her in the 19 k time trial, but Davis had prequalified. About 4 ½ minutes back, Dana averaged nearly 20 miles per hour.
“I had thought that I had a pretty decent race, but I had no idea really where I stood,” Dana recalled. “We went to that event that evening where they were going to announce the team and I convinced myself that I hadn’t made it, but we went anyway, like, ‘Oh, I’ll have a good attitude, cheer people on and it’ll be fun to see who gets to go.’ … Next thing I know my name’s being announced as a member of the team. It was pretty awesome. I was surprised and just utterly flabbergasted, like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did this.’ ”
With the Paralympics on the horizon from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9, Dana wasn’t sure what to expect. She didn’t watch the London Olympics over the last two weeks because she doesn’t have television. A weeklong U.S. team-training camp, which started Sunday in Buellton, Calif., would likely bring her up to speed.
The newest member on the team, Dana was excited to meet her teammates and get a feel for how things worked. On Sept. 5, she’ll compete in her first Paralympic event: the women’s individual time trial at Brands Hatch, a raceway venue in Kent, England, about a 45-minute drive from London.
Unsure how long the time trial would be, Dana said they are typically between 15 and 19 kilometers. She’ll also compete in the road race on Sept. 7, which she expected to be between 30 and 40 kilometers. If all went well, she might race the team relay on the 8th, but she was unsure of the selection process.
Dana was also recovering from pressure sores, a common and serious ailment among active people in wheelchairs, especially those without feeling below the waist.
“It’s been kind of a hard month for some different reasons,” she said. “I had a cold and flu and then I got a couple of pressure sores on my rear end from riding so much. … They will heal up eventually, but it’s a real inconvenience because I’m going to be traveling a lot in the next month and a half.
“It definitely limits my ability to just function in my everyday life and that’s hard,” she added. “I’m just getting up to train and go to essential appointments and the rest of the time, lie down or I have a standing frame that allows me to be in a standing position, so it’s a real pain.”
An unemployed single mom, she’s had to balance this and full-time training with taking care of her daughter, who’s out of school for the summer. Most recently, Dana had to explain to her 8-year-old why she had to leave for California and then England.
Fortunately, Dana said she has great friends and a community that fully supports her.
“That’s a real energy boost,” she said.
All things considered, she’d love to make the podium at the Paralympics, but had no idea what the international competition was like.
“I know for our team … Davis [is] definitely faster than me, so I’m not looking to get a gold medal,” Dana said. “It would be awesome to get a medal and I think I must at least have potential for that because that was part of their criteria when they chose the team members.”
To prepare, she aimed to heal up and stick with her training plan, watch her nutrition, rest and recovery, and keep a positive attitude. Once she gets there, she’ll try to race as she normally would, focusing on her climbing strengths and strategies without getting wrapped up in what others were doing.
Similar qualities got her on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team. According to Farra, he promised to leave Dana alone until after the Paralympics to let her concentrate on cycling. Come mid-September, she expected to attend a ski-team training camp in Lake Placid.
“Clearly she is a natural athlete who knows how to push the limits and can handle the suffering that comes along with a difficult endurance sport,” Farra wrote. “We were very impressed with her results at the USA World Cups, and we are excited to see how far she can take her skiing.”
Dana said he’s already hinted at Sochi.
“Farra’s been holding out some carrots for me in that direction,” she said. “He wants me to set my sights on that so we’ll see.”
Her success so far has kept her dreaming.
“Doing well enough to go to the World Cup and doing well enough at the World Cup to realize, ‘Oh, well, there might be something in this for me,’ it’s just fed my interest and motivation,” she said. “It’s exciting, it’s great. Who would’ve thought, a 43-year-old single mom could have an athletic career ahead of her?”