Athletic inspiration -- Steve Ackerman

Steve -- enjoying handcycling off-road.
On a fairly regular basis, I am lucky enough to run across people that inspire me. By simply being themselves and doing what might be ordinary to them, I find myself inspired to try a little harder and try to be better in some way or another. I would like to share these stories with you and perhaps you will find seeds of inspiration too.

Last summer I completed the first day of a Bicycle Tour of Colorado, a six-day, 460-mile bicycle tour that included over 38,000 feet of climbing, and I wanted one of my favorite post-event meals -- a burger and fries. After hunting down one of the local establishments and placing my order, I found a shady spot on the balcony to wait for the goods. Already enjoying burgers, fries and milkshakes were handcyclists, Steve Ackerman and Matt Feeney.

I spent a few minutes talking to the two cyclists, after Steve commented that I was wearing a cycling jersey from a club based in his home town, Ft. Collins, Colorado.

As soon as I left the cyclists that day, I couldn't help but marvel at their athleticism. They handcycled 65 miles over a route that included 10,850-foot Wolf Creek Pass. The total climbing for the day was over 8,800 feet.

The second day's bike tour was from Creed to Gunnison. This route was 106 miles, included over 8,100 feet of climbing and boasted two mountain passes. Spring Creek Pass summit is 10,901 feet and Slumgullion Pass stops reaching for the sky at 11,530 feet.

Most summer days in the mountains of Colorado include an afternoon rainstorm; this 106-mile day was no exception. The combination of elements made it a hard day on the road for many cyclists; some of who chose not to complete the ride that day.

At the end of day four of the tour, in the mountain town of Telluride, I saw Steve and Matt again. We happened to be staying at the same condominium complex. I stopped to talk with them to find out that they had cycled every mile of the tour so far -- 300 miles -- including that 106-mile day.

That century-plus day dealt driving rain, wind, mileage and enough climbing to make most everyone suffer. They were not excluded. While some cyclists called it a day and took the sag wagon to the finish that long day, Steve and Matt rode, handcycling the 106-mile day in just over 13 hours.

It was at the end of that Telluride conversation that I decided I had to write a story about these two athletes. I was so impressed by the upper body strength and endurance required to accomplish this bicycle tour that I had to find out more about these athletes and handcycling.

Getting to know Steve

Two months after the bicycle tour I met with Steve. He told me that swimming was his first choice of fitness after his 1987 car accident. He told me it took him six months to learn to swim freestyle, so he could complete more than a handful of laps in an hour. Before using freestyle, he used a modified dog paddle. Talking about learning to freestyle swim, he said, "One day it just clicked and I could swim."

Quite happy with swimming, Steve didn't take up cycling until 1990. In fact, when he was first exposed to the concept of handcycling, he wasn't interested. He met a person at a booth who was displaying a handcycle. The person told Steve that he planned to ride across the USA. Would Steve like to try out the machine that was going to take him on this trip?

"No thanks."

Within a year, Steve came across the cyclist again. He asked if the cyclist completed his ride across the USA in his goal time of 23 days. The cyclist said, "No, I didn't meet my goal -- I did it in18 days."

Ride across the USA in 18 days? Now that sounds interesting. After more thought and inspiration from that handcyclist, Steve decided that cycling might be an interesting sport. He ordered a handcycle. Little did he know then where handcycling would take him.

In 1990, after receiving the shiny new handcycle, Steve was discussing cycling with an able-bodied friend. The friend suggested that Steve participate in a bicycle tour, Ride the Rockies. Somewhat skeptical, Steve agreed to handcycle up one of the local climbs. His friend told him, "If you can make this climb, you can do Ride the Rockies." He made the climb. That was Steve's first year to complete Ride the Rockies.

For three years, Steve would be the only handcyclist completing Ride the Rockies. In 1993, he invited the person that inspired him to cycle to do the bicycle tour him, two handcyclists that year. In 1994, there were five handcyclists on the tour. The sport continued to grow.

After completing his sixth Ride the Rockies bicycle tour in 1995, Steve came home to find an envelope and an invitation. World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports group invited him to ride stages of a multi-stage tour around the world. Was this real?

After letting the invitation sit on his desk for a week and allowing his mind to wander, he contacted World TEAM Sports and asked if it would be possible for him to ride the entire tour, around the world. Yes, it was possible.

World TEAM Sports' mission statement is to "...use the universal power of sports to create soul-stirring experiences by teaming disabled athletes with able-bodied athletes, forming a true TEAM." They say, "We all ride the same road."

Seven handcyclists and four support staff members began a world tour that included 13 stages, 246 days and just over 13,000 miles of cycling. Steve was one of the six cyclists that completed the ride. These athletes rode around the world, an enormous accomplishment few people will ever achieve.

Riding around the world is a grand accomplishment indeed. Seems Steve just keeps looking for new things to do. A week before our meeting he competed in the inaugural off-road World Handcycling Championships held in Crested Butte, Colorado. He also competed in the first road World Handcycling Championships held in 1998.

What grand adventures are next for Steve? For this winter, it will be getting his downhill skiing technique nailed. Beyond that, whatever his imagination decides.

I found one of his favorite quotes in my research and asked if the quote was still one of his favorites. He said yes:

"If you can hold it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand."
-- Laurel Elizabeth Keyes



Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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