“My road to Rio has been a journey, not a destination,” said alumnus Aaron Scheidies just days before he was set to head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to compete in the 2016 Paralympics cycling competition. “It’s been a roller coaster up and down ride.”
Scheidies, B.A. ’04 (Kinesiology), will compete in the men’s visual impairment classification (also known as the men’s tandem). He was born with Stargardt disease, a common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration; he now sees with only 10 percent of the vision of a fully sighted person. During the races, Scheidies will take the position of the “stoker” on the back of the tandem bike, while a fully sighted individual, called the pilot, will help to maneuver the bike. There is a lot of trust in the sport, Scheidies explains, requiring that the athletes remain in sync and in constant communication in order to have their best race.
But he almost didn’t make it to where he is today.
Road to Rio
The journey to Rio began four years ago—and with a completely different sport. Scheidies was originally aiming to compete in the triathlon, but in 2015, his category of disability was cut for the Rio games.
“It shattered my hopes … it was a pretty big blow,” Scheidies recalled. “I questioned if that was the end of my career, or if I should go on to another sport. No matter what sport you go into, the fields are very competitive; it’s Olympic caliber. You don’t see many athletes go from one sport to another and compete in the Paralympics. You have to specialize because the competition is so good.”
Scheidies, who works as a physical therapist in Seattle, Wash., chose to continue in his career, and aimed to make the U.S. track and field team for the marathon. He needed to go under two hours and 40 minutes to make the team.
And then he got a stress fracture in his foot while training. The injury was serious, a red flag that continuing training with that high of mileage could cause him to get injured again.
Scheidies explored his options, and looked at cycling. He had done it before during triathlons, but the atmosphere and competition during triathlons was so different.
In 2015, he traveled to Europe along with his pilot, Ben Collins, and raced at the Para-cycling World Cup for the U.S. national team, winning several medals. Scheidies was the No. 1 blind male athlete in the U.S., and sixth in the world for his classification. But even that did not guarantee that he’d make it to the Paralympics.
Different classifications in cycling, such as locomotor or neurological, are rated using standards that allow all athletes to be graded, in a sense, on an equal playing field. If a classification’s field is particularly deep and competitive, that makes the standard that much more deep and competitive in order to qualify for the top spots. In addition, the International Paralympic Committee, which helps to organize the games, requires that each team is made up of so many athletes from each classification. By the time that several spots on the team went to these mandated spots, there were only two spots open for grabs for athletes in any classification.
“I have one of the best pilots, and I know my athletic abilities,” Scheidies said about his frame of mind before the final trials in Charlotte, NC. “To fathom that I wouldn’t make the team … it was just unreal.”
During the trials, Scheidies and his pilot were having “one of the best races of [their] lives” when disaster struck again. The chain on their bike broke, so they had to run to finish the race.
“That killed our spot to go to Rio. I was left out. I had started to change my focus to family, to work. Then I got a phone call.”
When all Russian Paralympic athletes were banned based on a doping scandal, several spots for male cyclists opened up.
“I was pretty shocked when I found out I was in,” Scheidies said. “I knew that there was going to be something that happened based on the Russians losing the appeal. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)—the governing body for cycling—took care of the allocation of the spots and invited specific athletes. So that triggered a mad scramble to start training.”
For those who know a little of Scheidies’ history, perhaps making it to such a global stage isn’t surprising. While attending MSU, he had a perfect 4.0 GPA and was president of the MSU Triathlon Club. After graduation, he was inducted into the Athletes with Disabilities Network Hall of Fame and was named a Distinguished Young Alumni for MSU. In 2011, he was a finalist for an ESPN ESPY Award for Best Athlete with a Disability. He is also a public speaker, and has been active in both the film and modeling industries. He’s been featured in GQ, Esquire, Competitor, ESPN the Mag and Men’s Health, among other publications.
Scheidies attributes some of his success in life and in athletics to his education at Michigan State University.
“The experience, the camaraderie, the atmosphere and the family-type feeling you get at MSU of being included is unmatched anywhere else,” he said. “My experience at MSU has molded me as a person and who I am.
“There is a degree of Spartans will that prevails in a lot of the things I do and what keeps me motivated. I wake up every day and think that it’s a great day to be a Spartan.”
During the 2016 Paralympics, running from Sept. 7-18, Scheidies will be competing in the cycling time trials on Sept. 14 and the road race on Sept. 17.
Learn more about Aaron:
YouTube: Aaron Scheidies TV