You have to keep pedaling to finish the race.

By MaryTherese GriffinJanuary 17, 2024

You have to keep pedaling to finish the race.
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The dynamic duo of Joe Christiansen and Michael Stephens racing for gold at the Parapan Games in Chile last November. (Photo Credit: MaryTherese Griffin)
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You have to keep pedaling to finish the race.
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“My wife and child are why I continue pushing so hard. I love to hear him yell GO DADDY!” – Michael Stephens, with his son Weslan at the Olympic training center in Colorado. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
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You have to keep pedaling to finish the race.
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Michael and Kylee Stephens in Colorado the night she said yes in 2020. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
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You have to keep pedaling to finish the race.
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Visually impaired runner Ret. Army Spc. Michael Stephens (l) finishes a race with his guide, Ret. Army Sgt. 1st Class Adam Blow, during the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Chicago. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
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FALLS CHURCH Va,- Watching Team Army athletes grow beyond the Warrior Games is like an extra red bow on a gift. In this “Where are they now” interview, we meet a two-time Warrior Games competitor on Team Army, athlete Michael Stephens. Yes, THAT Michael Stephens, who just set a new world record a few months ago at the Para Pan Games in Chile cycling.

The visually impaired athlete says it's been his most successful year- “We set a world record in November down in Chile- we went 1:02.9… It’s the new Parapan American Games record for the men’s B 100-meter individual time trial. We’ve only been back on the bike for maybe eight months… I had a baby with my wife, and my pilot Joe Christiansen was doing other great things in life, so to win gold and set a new world record at the Para Pan Games was pretty awesome.” B 100 meter is a visually impaired classification in the Paralympics. Athletes in this category are totally or mostly blind.

The high that Stephens is on today is a direct result of dedication to a sport he never knew anything about until he was injured in the Army on a deployment. “I was injured in combat operations in Afghanistan a handful of times… we were an explosives unit doing route clearance, so through IEDs and direct action, I was wounded five separate times during 2013-2014.”

Stephen’s shoulder blades were ripped off his back at one point; he had spinal injuries and multiple TBIs, which caused him to lose muscle control in his eyes. He is now visually impaired. “I came home expecting to have a couple of surgeries and be sent on my way.” That did not happen. His unit had orders to go back a year later to continue what they were doing.

“My injuries were much more significant than previously presumed in the field. I was told I would be staying put for a while, and I was pretty angry about that,” said the 38-year-old, sent to the FT Bliss Soldier Recovery Unit from mid-2014 to Jan 2016.

He says he didn’t adjust to life at the SRU at first, and he had his frustrations knowing he would not get back into the fight. So now what? He says he wasn’t a great athlete, so to speak, before all his injuries, but these adaptive sports were available to him.

“ In 2014, it was a requirement that a Soldier spend 2-3 days in some adaptive reconditioning event from art to music to adaptive sports. The cycling coordinator there at the time, Marc Cattapan, who is now at the SRU at FT Carson, turned me on to cycling. He sold it to me very simply- he said you get out on post and don’t have to be around anybody. I took to it immediately.” Stephens quickly progressed from a learner bike to realizing he enjoyed the pacing structure of pace lines. He had a future in adaptive sports.

“I was on the bike all the time, and the zero impact on my body was so beneficial. I got good enough to try out for Team Army. Once again, Marc Cattapan had a way of talking me into it.” He made Team Army and competed in Warrior Games at WestPoint in 2016 and 2017 at Warrior Games in Chicago. “It’s all been difficult. It’s been difficult to get out of care, especially with brain injuries and muscle issues, as those tend to get worse with time.”

He’s been through regular care and restorative care, and in 2017, his body completely shut down when he learned he had Multiple Sclerosis. His liver and kidneys shut down, and he was in ICU for eight days.

“I almost died. With all of my injuries, the MS is the toughest battle for me today.” Yet Stephens takes each day with his new family and new goals in the Paralympics and stays focused. It is not lost on him that his world changes a little every day.

“I keep losing more control over what my eyes are capable of doing. I'm classified internationally as a B2 athlete. I don’t drive anymore, I hardly leave the house, and my life is structured around routines to be safe. Life has gotten a lot smaller, which has been difficult.”

But then there’s the whole wide world of Para Cycling. Stephen’s dedication and drive to compete and win are only overshadowed by one thing. Reality. “There's a lot of pride in getting on that bike, but one thing that never ceases is that it scares the hell out of me.” Every time I strap myself into those pedals, and everything we do is very fast, it makes me feel good to put all that power out, but I know I could be on the ground any second.

He and his pilot's average is 65 kilometers an hour. “We hit almost 80 kilometers an hour at one race, and that is with no gears and no brakes.”

Stephens and Christiansen will compete in a race in February that most of the para-cycling community will be at, and that will hopefully secure them a spot at The World Championships in Rio in March, the final qualifier for the Paris Paralympics this summer.

He likens his current racing to anything in life especially when asked his advice for younger Soldiers who may need an SRU one day. “The only way to finish the race is to keep pedaling because if you slow down momentum, it could be disastrous.”

“I want to show people that if you want to excel at true paralympic sport, you must dedicate yourself. I’ve only wanted to be a positive influence outside the military and strive to be the best- I know it will take everything I’ve got.”

After the Paralympics, he says it’s time to work with others to achieve their dream. “I want to help mentor the next athlete, whether military coming home or kids coming up through the ranks. I'm waiting for my opportunity to give back.”