Riding high: Paralympic medalist boasts of upcoming national event
Oz Sanchez started riding a bike when was about 5. The seat-post was so high he couldn’t even sit down, so he just pedaled and pedaled hard.
He never dreamed of riding in the Olympics and obviously, never thought he’d ever be a Paralympian.
But six years after joining the Marines in 1996, a car blew through a stop sign and crashed into him as he was riding his motorcycle.
Instantly paralyzed, the Los Angeles native’s life was forever changed.
A new life with new challenges.
He went through a time of severe depression and what he called a “life without purpose” where he “struggled for a meaningful life.”
He found both and cycling was at the center of his new life with a purpose.
“I can say without a doubt that sports saved my life because I found my therapy through sport,” he said.
Sanchez, 40, was speaking at the Hot Tomato in Fruita at a reception on Monday announcing that Grand Junction will host the 2017 Para-cycling National Road Championships April 27-30.
Sanchez talked about his journey from Marine to Paralympic champion. The six-time Paralympic medalist said it’s exciting to see the 2017 championships partnering with the 2017 Collegiate National Road Championships.
“Cycling as a sport, especially in the adaptive Paralympic side, is almost an unknown. Everybody knows the Olympic side pretty wel,l but when you mention Paralympics, people are like ‘what’s that all about?’ ” he said.
To have the para-cycling nationals as part of the collegiate nationals means more exposure for the para-athletes.
“Anytime we get a chance to piggyback on USA Cycling events and national events, it makes a difference to us because we’re getting that exposure, it draws attention to us and our sport,” he said.
With thick powerful shoulders and arms, Sanchez is passionate about competing and promoting para-athletes.
“It’s a huge, huge opportunity because a lot of individuals with disabilities, especially if they aren’t born with it, the onset of a disability usually comes with an onset of depression,” he said.
The reception drew community members as well as Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster, other dignitaries and board members of the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission.
The commission was responsible for securing the collegiate road nationals for 2017-18 as well as the para-cycling nationals for 2017.
The commission’s executive director, Jennifer Stoll, spoke with Tom Mahoney, USA Cycling national event manager, at last year’s Maverick Classic road cycling event.
“We worked really hard with Tom and his team about exploring the option and opportunity to tag the para-cycling nationals onto the collegiate road national championships,” Stoll said at the reception.
Mahoney said this will be the first time USA Cycling will combine the collegiate and para-cycling championships together at the same venue.
“USA Cycling is really excited to bring this event to Grand Junction and Mesa County. The cycling community here is so strong, I think we are going to have one of the strongest events ever with USA Cycling,” he said.
He said the courses will basically be the same but there will be two different time-trial courses.
“We’ll have a different course for the more disabled cyclists,” he said.
Sanchez, who has ridden and raced in Colorado more than any other state, said it’s great to have nationals in a strong cycling community.
“I think one of the greatest things about being able to perform and train for so many years, is to have someone there spectating. And to have a town that’s such a supportive cycling community, they’re going to show up and cheer you on, and that makes a difference, and it makes you go faster,” he said with a smile.
Sanchez, who now lives in San Diego, said “Oz” is a nickname from the first letter of his first name (Oscar) and the last letter of his last name. When he was younger, he competed some in BMX racing and mountain biking before joining the Marines and that’s when he got into road cycling.
“When I got injured I gravitated toward cycling when I found out there was adaptive cycling,” he said. “I got on one of those back in 2002 and I’ve never been off it since.”
It took time but he’s now one of the best para-cyclists in the world and has won medals in the last three Paralympic Games. In Beijing he won gold in the time trial and bronze in the road race. In London he won gold as part of the time trial relay, and bronze in the time trial. A couple of months ago in Rio De Janeiro, he won silver in the team relay and bronze in the time trial.
He says time trial is his specialty.
“I’m better at the time trial because of my size. I’m like a freight train. Once I get going up to speed I’m good,” he said.
Getting up to speed in the sport took a few years, though.
“I remember my humble years back in 2003, riding with my Chuck Taylors, my white beater and getting it on,” he said, smiling.
Back then, it was more about getting people with disabilities out and developing an active lifestyle, he said. It’s now an “elite-level sport” where athletes like Sanchez can get up to 27 mph during a 20K time trial using only the arms, shoulders and back.
Before to the 2016 Games, he said he over-trained and had to take off close to two months. He then ramped back up for about two months to prepare.
“The fact that I got on the podium, I will be honest, it was a harder fought bronze than the hard-fought gold was at Beijing,” he said.
But it’s that bronze and frustration from Brazil that has him already thinking about the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“I knew I wasn’t the best me in Rio, so halfway after the podiums were over, I was already making plans for Tokyo,” he said.
The road to Tokyo has already started for Sanchez and other top para-cyclists in the nation. And now that road goes right through Grand Junction in April of 2017.