Overcoming adversity at Rio Paralympics

Tristen Chernove reflects on his triple-medal debut at world's premiere sporting event.

Tristen Chernove captured gold in the Para-Cycling Time Trial Men’s C2 at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Tristen Chernove captured gold in the Para-Cycling Time Trial Men’s C2 at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

With a dislocated shoulder and numerous scrapes and bruises after crashing with five other riders in the Paralympic cycling road race, Tristen Chernove could’ve easily — and understandably — called it quits.

However, that’s not in his nature.

The Cranbrook cyclist, already with three medals to his name during his time at the Paralympics, picked himself up, fiddled with his bicycle — which was still functional even though the handlebars were twisted and there was limited access to all gears because of a busted front derailer  — and got back on the course.

He finished in 15th place.

“It’s unfortunate to not have been able to contend for the win, but I’m more proud of that race than any of the races of the Games,” said Chernove. “Looking at my power profile data after the ride, it’s the strongest ride I’ve ever done. I went from several minutes behind the whole pelaton to finishing 15th, which required a monumental effort.

“…So I’m super proud of the effort, but I rode really hard to end up with the finish I had.”

Chernove is back home in Cranbrook after a whirlwind experience at the Rio Parlaympic Games, nabbing a full spectrum of medals — gold, silver and bronze — while competing in track cycling and road racing events.

Tristen Chernove captured a silver in the Para-Cycling 3000m Individual Pursuit final at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

He was the first multi-medalist of the Paralympics, winning a silver medal in the Men’s C2 3,000-metre Individual Pursuit on Sept. 9 and claiming a bronze the next day in the C1-2-3 1,000-metre Time Trial.

His golden performance came out on the time trial portion of the road race on Sept. 14, as he cycled to the top of the podium with a time of 27:43.16 — almost 20 seconds ahead of the silver medallist.

Though his fourth and final event, the Men’s Road Race C1-2-3, didn’t go as he planned, he is proud of how he responded after the crash to pedal back into 15th place, despite being a few minutes behind the pack.

The crash in the road race wasn’t the first hurdle of adversity Chernove faced during the Games.

While the road race events are his strength, the two gold medals he won at the Para-cycling Track World Championships in Italy this past March was a stark reminder that he certainly was a gold-medal threat at the velodrome.

However, there were a number of circumstances that conspired against him, namely in the form of digestive issues and sleep deprivation, which compounded the stress of preparing to perform at his athletic peak.

“It all culminated to four nights of zero sleep before the track events started as well as some other health issues, so I went into those events pretty shattered already,” said Chernove.

“…When you haven’t slept for many, many nights and you’re not feeling well and not able to eat, I was really questioning whether it was even safe to sit on a bike. I was questioning whether it was even safe to ride and not crash, let alone put in a performance.”

But perform he did, straight to a silver medal in the Men’s C2 3,000-Metre Individual Pursuit followed by a bronze in the C1-2-3 1,000-metre Time Trial.

Tristen Chernove takes the bronze medal in men’s C1-2-3 1,000m Time Trial at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

While Chernove says he was personally frustrated with his performance — he knew he could have raced faster if he was feeling 100 per cent — hitting the podium in spite of his health setbacks is not an insignificant accomplishment.

Ever the glass-half-full optimist, he also took other positive outlooks from the experience.

Chernove referenced the performance of Liang Guihua of China, who won the gold in the Individual Pursuit, noting that his life will be changed forever because of the payout from that nation’s government, which is roughly anywhere from $36,000 – $55,000.

“For him, a gold medal is a lot of money,” Chernove said. “For me, if I had one gold or two golds or three golds coming out of the Paralympics, it doesn’t really make a difference in my life.

“For him, that changes his life forever, for him and his family.”

Following the track events, Chernove was able to stabilize his accommodations, get some rest and was fully healthy for the road race events.

“It was because of all of those elements coming together and being back to myself, I knew that I would be able to ride to my own standards and do what I wanted to do,” said Chernove.

Brimming with confidence, he attacked the Copacabana road course for the C2 Time Trial, and was the fifth rider out of the gate as athletes were released in one-minute intervals and timed to establish the final results.

Being the fifth rider is somewhat of a disadvantage because there isn’t a lot of competition in front of you; there’s “not a lot of rabbits to chase down,” as Chernove explained.

After his first lap, he heard from his coach through an earpiece that his closest competition was leading by one second, so Chernove turned on the gas.

By the time he finished the second lap, he was up nine seconds and by the halfway point of his third lap, he was up by 24 seconds — a huge margin.

Tristen Chernove competes in the men’s C1-2-3 1,000m time trail at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

“I knew that I had it then, so it was just staying safe,” Chernove said. “There were six 180-degree turns on the course where you pretty much have to lose all your speed, pretty technical turns, so I knew that I had such a gap that I could play it safe and make sure I didn’t have a crash and just ride it out.”

His time at 27:43.16 was good for the gold medal, which completed the set along with silver and bronze, cementing his status as one of the greatest Canadian athletes to participate in the Rio Games.

But there was one competition left , the C1-2-3 Road Race — his favourite event — which makes the crash all that much more frustrating.

Chernove was battling with five other riders at the head of the pelaton, as all five rotated making attacks to move to the front while the other four took advantage of the draft.

Germany’s Steffen Warias made a move up to the front on the left side, with Chernove pedaling behind the wheel of Ireland’s Eoghan Clifford. However, a Colombian rider to Chernove’s right, tried to cut in front of the Cranbrook rider, who only had a two-foot gap between himself and Clifford, to take advantage of Warias’ draft.

“He cut right across our front wheels and knocked myself and a New Zealand rider down,” Chernove said. “And when he knocked us down, we fell into a Belgian and instantly there were five of us on the ground.”

It took a few minutes to recover and get his bicycle operational, but Chernove hopped back on his seat and pedalled to finish in 15th place.

The storybook script would have been sweeping gold at all of his events and parlaying the success he’s had on the world cup circuit into the Rio Games.

However, sometimes unforeseen plot twists aren’t always a bad thing.

“I think if I’d have gone to the Games and hit all my goals,” Chernove said, “been at my best for everything and if everything had have lined up so I could do my normal performances on the track and break the world record and get multiple gold medals —if I didn’t have the crash happen in the road race, and had everything go perfectly, I don’t think there would have been much motivation for me to continue on and go to the Tokyo Games.

“As there’s some unfinished business, maybe that needed to happen to give me something to still pursue and keep me motivated.”

A triple-medal debut performance at the world’s premiere sporting event has turned some heads within the national cycling community, as well as the media.

That notoriety is allowing him to do what he originally wanted when he got involved with competitive cycling, which is to raise awareness on hereditary neuropathy opportunities through para-sport.

Tristen Chernove competes on the track at the velodrome during the Rio Paralympic Games.

In 2009, Chernove was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological condition with symptoms similar to muscular dystrophy and got involved with competitive cycling as a way to manage his symptoms.

Now, he’s going to be a headlining guest at a Cycling B.C. gala next week in Vancouver and will be going to Toronto at the end of the month for a celebration of Olympic and Paralympic medal winners, where he will be a guest on the CBC’s George Strombolopolous show, alongside the Tragically Hip.

“That’s why I started all this,” Chernove said. “When I realized I had this disease, I wanted to be a part of fundraising for treatment and cure for future generations and now I really am in a place where I can have a global impact that way.”

While Chernove has returned to Cranbrook and has transitioned back into is role as CEO of Elevate Airports, where he manages the Canadian Rockies International Airport, training for 2017 World Cup events is already in the back of his mind. Last Thursday, he headed down to Burnaby to get in some time on the velodrome track, but for now, it’s about racing for fun rather than for results.

Still, the memories of Rio are still fresh, and it’s not necessarily the medals he’ll treasure.

During down times outside of the Paralympic events, athletes could wander over to the food pavilion, a huge single room lined with buffets that could feed all the athletes at once.

“Any time you go there, you’re sitting down with international folks,” Chernove said, “so one day I might be sitting with the Iraqi team or the Chinese team or the Saudi team, you’re just constantly intermixing with these international folks with a common passion and it’s wonderful.

“Everyone is so supportive and curious about each other and 167 countries all sharing mealtimes is a powerful thing.”