Chris Sproule’s journey from Las Vegas to the Tokyo Paralympics will have been 17 years in the making, should he land a spot on the U.S. handcycling team for the 2020 games.
In 2003, Sproule became paralyzed, losing the use of his legs, in an ATV accident on a dusty and winding Utah trail during a Memorial Day weekend trip with his fellow Las Vegas Fire Station 1 firefighters.
“I remember thinking, that, well, ‘I don’t sound so good,'” he said in mid-July, recalling the first time he awoke from the 90-day coma that followed.
“I had been on enough medical calls and had known what bad patients sound like,” he explained. “And, being on a ventilator with tubes down your throat, hooked up to everything on life support, I knew that this isn’t good.”
Two weeks after that moment, Sproule says he traveled by ambulance to a hospital in California, where he would spend the next six months taking the first steps on his road to recovery and receive his first handcycle.
To support him in his recovery, representatives from the Darrel Gwynn Foundation approached Sproule at his California rehabilitation center.
The organization, named for the drag racer whose injuries in an exhibition race made him a quadriplegic, was founded to provide support for people with paralysis and prevent spinal cord injuries.
The husband and father of two responded, “Let’s get a handcycle.”
Sproule returned to the Las Vegas Valley and, six months later, to the fire department, where he went on to work as a dispatcher for two years. After that he moved on to working for a federal program that coordinates among law enforcement, public health agencies and ambulance companies.
Except for the occasional recreational ride, he says the hand-operated three-wheeler went unused for years.
“The timing wasn’t right.”
But, in 2013, it finally was.
Sproule competed for the first time in the Long Beach Marathon alongside 75 other cyclists, with a modest goal to “just finish.”
He placed third.
“I had never felt so alive in the last 15 years, as I did in that moment,” he said.
It wasn’t long until his competitive drive kicked in and he realized he could have a future in the sport, which he described as NASCAR meets the Tour de France. Unlike a bicycle, a handcycle is arm-powered, with two coasting wheels in the back and a steerable front wheel.
“I wanted to keep doing it.”
Sproule went on to compete nationally for the next year, and returned to the Long Beach Marathon to take the top spot in 2014.
Now, he trains up to seven times a week under the direction of U.S. Paralympic handcycling coach Rick Babington, described by teamusa.org as a “tactical genius.”
With the help of Babington’s intense training regimen and continued success on the national stage, Sproule has gone from wanting to just finish, to wanting to take home Olympic gold.
It is “almost impossible” for an athlete to compete in such a high-level program in such a short time, Babington said. “There are very few exceptions.”
Babington, who has been a parcycling coach since 1998, said Sproule is on the right trajectory to make the team, however, crediting his steady progression, motivation and work ethic.
The final selection won’t be made until a few months before the games, which means Sproule has five more years to train. Babington says he tells athletes that it takes three to five years of focused training to see potential of competing in the Olympic arena.
Sproule’s motivation is “as or more than average,” compared to other competitors, Babington said.
Doing well at the national level quickly gained the attention of U.S. team recruiters, who invited Sproule to a talent identification day at the Rose Bowl.
“I had the fastest time of the day,” he said.
The results prompted an invitation to a weeklong talent identification camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., then to a talent development camp in Florida with the top handcyclists in the country.
“I held my own, but realized I had a lot of work to do.”
Currently ranked ninth in the country, Sproule, now 39, did not earn a spot on the team that will compete in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
To help qualify for 2020, Sproule plans to take the 2016 No.1 spot in the country, then compete in the world championships in Europe.
He has a long road in front of him, but his favorite part about competing, he says: “the journey in between.”
A GoFundMe has been established page for those who wish to donate to his journey. It can be found at gofundme.com/chrissprouleusa.