Cycling in silence
Riding fuels competitive fire for GJ Deaflympian John Klish
Somewhere in the middle of the pack, which in the moment feels more like a scrum, rhythmically breathing as legs pump like pistons, maybe 20 minutes into the race, bent low over the handlebars, a fleeting thought: Why am I doing this?
Minutes and weeks and years of training — a part-time job, hour-wise — with the burning lungs and the howling muscles, facing competitors at least as prepared, at least as hungry, and in near-total silence.
No audio cues, no whir of gear teeth against chain as another rider approaches, no hiss of tire against asphalt, no wind-tunnel static of air across the ears, no rough rasp of breath yanked down the trachea and into the lungs. Just the feel of it.
Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?
It’s the inevitable wall, and John Klish knows to anticipate it, and how to counter it.
Why am I doing this?
He is 31 years old. He’s had profound bilateral hearing loss since birth. He’s a cancer survivor of more than seven years. He’s in the best shape of his life, and his internal engine has one setting: Go!
It’s propelling the Grand Junction athlete to the Deaflympics from July 26 to Aug. 4 in Sofia, Bulgaria, as a member of the U.S. Deaf Cycling Team. It inspired him to crowd-source his dream (http://www.gofundme.com/Klishy-Deaflympics) to help raise the $7,500 he needs to get to Sofia, a goal met May 2 through 74 individual donations over two months.
“This community is so amazing,” he said after reaching the goal. “So many people have helped me and are supporting me.”
In him, perhaps, they see a friend, a mentor, a superior athlete, a driven competitor, an embodiment of possibility — that obstacles are only as big as they’re allowed to be, that success depends on a domino cascade of choices, that work is a lifetime commitment and it’s rarely easy, that the summit is reached only in one push of the pedal after another.
“Sometimes that’s all you can do,” he said. “One pedal stroke at a time.”
“He’s got an incredible focus,” said Greg Mueller, Klish’s coach since 2010. “He’s not distracted by a lot of these things that are going on, so it’s almost like a calmness of mind that other people don’t have. Obviously, there are a lot of obstacles in going through life with deafness, but it’s really a tremendous benefit that his mind is just a lot quieter than the average person’s.”
Since birth, his deafness has defined, in part, his life experiences, and he’s worked hard to not let it define him.
“We probably really knew (that he was deaf) when he was born, but it took us about three weeks to admit it to each other,” said Klish’s father, Michael. “My younger brother is deaf, so it’s something that was familiar to me.”
By three months old, Klish had his first hearing aids and started speech therapy soon thereafter. Klish’s mom, Karen Fehringer, an occupational therapist, adamantly disregarded the advice of an audiologist that she and Klish’s father enroll him in a school for the deaf and blind. Instead, the family, including daughter Megan, picked up their lives and moved to Massachusetts so John could attend the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech.
From the time he was a toddler, he learned to read lips and form his own speech, “and he learned to use what hearing he had, which isn’t much,” Michael Klish said.
He didn’t learn sign language until he was 14, when he became friends with other kids with hearing loss at an Aspen summer camp.
The thing that saved him from isolation, from retreating into the consuming quiet, was sports. He’s always been a person of intense forward momentum and insatiable energy. When he was younger it was team sports, especially soccer. But when the family moved to Grand Junction in 1992, when Klish was 11, his dad wanted him to try out a few individual sports, too.
When Klish was 14, he and his dad set out on the drainage behind Michael Klish’s house on Rosevale Road, eventually ending up on the Tabeguache Trail. It was Klish’s first time on a mountain bike and he’s never looked back.
After a bad take-down while playing defensive sweeper for the Grand Junction High School varsity soccer team, a hit that blew out his left knee, he finished out high school on the soccer team, but his sights already were turned toward cycling. A year and a half at the Colorado School of Mines, which wasn’t a good fit, led to Colorado State University, from which he graduated in 2005 with a degree in mechanical engineering and at which he was a member of the cycling team for three years.
And the competition — wow, it was addictive. Road races, mountain biking races, he entered them all, seeing how far and hard he could push himself, seeing what, exactly, he was capable of doing. Often he ended up on the podium, sometimes he won.
And just to see him, this is surprising. He’s bigger than cyclists are traditionally built, taller and with legs like a speed skater.
“I ask him if he has to hang those up at night,” Mueller joked. “He’s just got a lot of power, and the way it works in cycling is: If you’re a bigger guy, it can work against you as you’re going up steep hills. On flat road, it’s a matter of power-to-wind resistance, but on the steeper stuff it becomes a case of power to weight. He’s a really good climber for a bigger guy.”
Plus, Mueller added, Klish attacks with the ferocity of a wolverine. Mueller, who lives in Eagle, said he remembers a particular Grand Junction race during which, on a downhill stretch, Klish pushed to the lead, ending up behind the lead motorcycle that in turn had gotten stuck behind a truck that wasn’t supposed to be on the course. Klish pushed past the motorcycle, pushed past the truck, and raced ahead.
Later, looking at the second-by-second data from Klish’s power meter, Mueller saw that Klish’s attack was at 40.3 mph.
Sometimes, the bold move is the best one. Like when, in June 2005, he felt a lump in his testicle. His physician originally thought it was just a sore bump, but three months later it still hurt, and an ultrasound and blood tests revealed it was cancer. He immediately went into surgery, but the cancer had spread, so three rounds of chemotherapy followed, beginning the week of Thanksgiving 2005, four hours per day, five days a week, until the middle of January 2006.
To be 24 and scared and staring at a tube flowing intense chemicals into his body, after a lifetime of superior athleticism, was as humbling a thing as he’d ever experienced. Mortality stood before him at an age when most men still know for a fact that they’re invincible.
An April 2006 exam revealed a tumor near his stomach, so surgery to remove it — it turned out benign — and some lymph nodes threatened to knock him low once again. He wouldn’t have it.
Six weeks later, almost to the day that his doctor said it was barely acceptable, he entered a mountain bike race in Crested Butte. He wiped out pretty bad, smashed his bike, ended up in the medic tent, but he still noticed the incongruity of rocks being removed from his skin with tweezers while under his jersey he had a huge, still-fresh scar from his pubic bone and up his abdomen. The only thing to do, then, was get back on his bike.
He finished fourth.
And he hasn’t stopped since, competing sometimes semiprofessionally in road and mountain bike races and also competing in triathlons, trail running, swimming, cyclocross, snowshoeing and rando racing. Basically, whatever’s in season.
But it’s cycling to which he’s most devoted himself. He met Mueller at the Mountain Peddler in Eagle “and I didn’t know he was deaf,” Mueller recalled. “I just thought he was so focused on his bike. He just has really good concentration. And I remembered those guys at the shop telling me he’s got a big motor.”
After watching Klish over several weeks at the weekly bike series in Vail, Mueller, who raced himself and who’s coached since 2004, told Klish he could help. They scrutinized data from Klish’s power meter and tinkered with technique, adjusting pedal position going into curves, say, or how to angle into the sweet spot amid a pack of riders. They determined how many days of hard training per week he should do and what that training should be: hill sprints, incline endurance, cross training, whatever will further build him as an athlete.
No detail was too small — most of it communicated via text message, especially after Klish transferred to Grand Junction with his job as a roadway engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation — including the type of soy protein in Klish’s recovery drink or how much sleep he should get every night (eight-and-a-half hours).
All this, knowing that Klish will probably never enter, let alone win, the Tour de France or stand on an Olympic podium. And that’s all fine. What he loves is the competition, the electric surge of adrenaline, the internal satisfaction of seeing what new heights he’s capable of.
And on another level, it’s vital to him that he’s visible as a deaf athlete, that he can show other people with deafness that sports are for them, that the necessary adjustments are small. In that vein, Klish started an organization called Deaflete (http://www.deaflete.org) to bring attention to athletes with deafness and what is necessary to draw them fully into world-class competition.
“For example, if you’re at a race and they announce the five-minute warning over the intercom, we can’t hear that,” Klish explained. “So, we’re working on getting signs or marquees that will announce things like that. Little accommodations like that make competition so much easier for deaf athletes.”
Beyond small changes in competition, Klish said he wants to set an example for other deaf athletes that the fear can be conquered. To be among a pack of cyclists, a mere six inches from the nearest one, feeling the heat rise off them, catching the slipstream of their speed, and to hear none of it, to rely solely on the other senses, can be nerve-wracking, an acute vulnerability.
Yet Klish plunges in. At the Deaflympics, at the seven-stage Tour de Formosa last summer in Taipei, Taiwan, at every Colorado race he can enter — dozens last year, the same pace this year.
“He’s really focused, really dedicated,” said his girlfriend, Sarah Summers. Their first date more than a year ago was, naturally, a mountain bike ride, and she too competes in triathlons.
“I owe a lot to her support,” Klish said, acknowledging it’s not always easy living with someone who gets home from work and almost always heads back out on a training ride.
She’ll accompany him to Sofia in July.
“It’s an honor to be a member of the U.S. Deaf Cycling Team,” he said, “and I’m excited to compete.”
He’ll participate in the 1,000-meter sprint, the 40-kilometer individual time trial, the road race and the 50-kilometer points race, as well as in a mountain bike race recently added to the slate of events. He’ll compete against athletes from around the world.
And he’ll do it in a pack of his peers, world-class athletes who ride through silence, relying on what they see and what they feel to guide them across the finish line.