The greatest challenges we face in our lives, and how we face them and overcome them, can lead to the greatest fulfillments in our lives.
Tristen Chernove, one of Canada’s great cyclists, spoke to the Cranbrook Rotary Club at their luncheon at the Heritage Inn, Thursday, July 15.
Chernove, also President and CEO of Elevate Airports at the Canadian Rockies International Airport, is preparing for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, set for August 24-Sept. 5 this year (the Paralympics, along with the Olympic Games, were postponed last year due to the pandemic).
Chernove is a multi-medalist at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He’s won multiple medals at world championships, and has been named Canadian Cyclist of the Year, among other honours.
But his journey to this athletic prominence began with a jolting life change, when Chernove was diagnosed in 2009 with Charcot Marie Tooth disease, a degenerative disease of the peripheral nervous system.
Chernove spoke during his Rotary presentation of how he came to respond to that diagnosis.
“I didn’t confront the challenges of having a nerve disease until quite late in my athletic career,” he said.
“For 17 years I was on the national padding team on the able-bodied side of things. I had the privilege of representing Canada at championships in several different countries, the last time being in 2009 in Australia.
“Eventually I came to the decision to retire from paddling, thinking my athletic career was over, and then discovering my greatest talent might have been missed — and that was cycling, that I should have been doing all along.”
And so Chernove started out a second athletic career.
“I’ve had a bit of a unique experience, in that I’ve spent so many years on an able-bodied side of sport, and then experiencing the para side of sport later in life. And appreciating it so much more.”
Chernove finds this life experience reflected in both Olympic values and Paralympic values. They aren’t just catchphrases to him.
Most people aren’t aware that the Olympics and the Paralympics have a different value set and a different ethos. Olympic values are listed as Friendship, Responsibility and Excellence, while Paralympic values include Determination, Courage, Equality and Inspiration. Chernove said although the value sets have been coming together over the years, he’d love it see them merge into one common brand — one value set.
“Certainly the Paralympic values are reflected just in my daily life. Just living and extracting the maximum amount of life with greater challenges than I had experienced prior to having a disability.”
Chernove spoke about his experiences at the Paralympics Games in Rio in 2016, and how those games changed his view of his life in sport.
Going into the Rio games, it was expected that Chernove had the best chance of winning a gold medal in the Road Race. However, he was taken out in a crash only seven kilometres into the race.
“We had a lot of difficulty getting the bike operational again, and spent 86 kilometres chasing back without any shifting, in a very small gear, which didn’t work out so well,” he said.
“This was the most challenging piece of the games, and though it was the only thing that didn’t result in a podium, it’s probably my proudest moment. The bike didn’t work, I had a dislocated shoulder, and was beaten up in other ways, I didn’t give up, and was able to push with one gear from being six minutes behind the pelleton to finishing 15th overall.
“I had zero regret. I felt good about the additional challenge that that mishap actually posed.”
Chernove did, however, finish up with three medals from the Rio Paralympics — a silver medal in the C2 3000-metre individual pursuit, a bronze medal in the 1,000-metre time trial and a gold medal in another time trial.
Chernove said that part of that achievement was being “pushed by the energy of the spectators.”
The fact that there will be no spectators at the Tokyo games is something he is “still getting his head around.”
“It’s easier to shut out pain and focus on our goals when we focus on what other people are seeing us do, and what we’re capable of doing.”
Like that experience in Rio, what Chernove came to realize after being diagnosed with his disease was that the challenges that came with it also brought great rewards in the overcoming of them.
“The deeper the lows we walk through, then it feels like the highs are that much higher and more rewarding. The things that hurt the most are often the things I’m most grateful for.”
That was then, this is now. The Tokyo Games are at hand, and Chernove has noticed a certain irony between the two events. For one, he had only just joined Team Canada in time for the Rio de Janeiro Games, and had only been competing in paracycling for a few months, with relatively little preparation for the Paralympics.
On the other hand, Chernove has had “too much prep time” for the upcoming Tokyo Games. Those games, of course, were cancelled last year, leaving athletes with a five-year gap between Paralympics.
“Five years to train, and ruminate, and peak, and change what your schedule is and what your expected timelines of competition are — it’s been completely the opposite. I’m hoping that will turn into something that will allow me to extract even more out of this Tokyo experience.”
Not only that, but because of the pandemic, Chernove has been training in a vacuum, without competitions to test himself against other athletes.
“As much as we compete against ourselves all the time, it’s really our measure when we get to apply it against other athletes — where I get to know where I have to improve, or I get the calm of where I know I’m performing the way I want to. It’s been blind since we’ve stopped having races. My last race was January, 2020. All that time to second guess myself.
“That’s one of the things that’s going to pose the biggest challenge for me, that the first race for me in a long, long time will be the race that matters the most.”
Chernove spoke of how he is moving forward in his athletic life, changing his focus, and “winding down from how busy I am.” He is a recognizable figure in countries where cycling is a popular sport, Belgium, for example.
But at age 46, Chernove’s focus is shifting more towards his legacy, and how he can be a vehicle for change towards a future of opportunity, equity, accessibility and diversity in sport. This includes helping with fundraising initiatives like the BC Epic 1000, and being more involved with the cycling community as a whole, mentoring younger athletes with less international race experience, helping develop programs, becoming vice-chair of the Athletes’ Council for Cycling Canada.
Chernove spoke about the changes he has gone through because of the trials and challenges he’s face in his life, and how his attitudes have evolved.
“Passion, and finding the right thing to be passionate about is what it’s all bout for me,” he said.
“Passion, resilience and gratitude. Success and happiness isn’t always coming from where we think it is. Overcoming challenges can be so satisfying in our lives.”