Home » Beyond Disabilities: Tricia Downing, an Athlete With an Inspiring Life Story

Beyond Disabilities: Tricia Downing, an Athlete With an Inspiring Life Story

by Katie Schuknecht
Tricia Downing (athlete) during a race

Tricia Downing has carried many titles throughout her life but one that has brought immense joy is her athlete title. Swimming for fun as a child progressed to competitive swimming and gymnastics in high school. She continued her passion for sports as a competitive diver in college, ultimately completing a master’s degree in sports management.

As interests tend to evolve, Tricia did as well, and she fell in love with the sport of cycling. As with any other sport, this required a great deal of training and practice. It was during a training ride in 2000 that Tricia’s life was altered. A car hit her bicycle, paralyzing her from the waist down. 

Challenging doesn’t begin to cover the monumental changes Tricia has experienced, but it also doesn’t define them. Her spinal cord injury has allowed Tricia to add several new titles: Author. Advocate. Motivational speaker. One title she wasn’t willing to give up was: Athlete. When it comes to overcoming and facing adversity, she is the ultimate role model. After her injury, she became the first female wheelchair user to complete an Iron distance triathlon. In 2016, she competed as a Paralympian target shooter in Rio. 

Tricia’s interview with Nongirly was one brimming with wisdom and optimism. She emphasized the benefit of relationships and the importance of being uniquely yourself. She’ll remind you of the value of resilience, even in the most challenging situations. 

Q&As

What has your experience been like as a woman so involved in a variety of sports?

I’ve been able to look at sports from a lot of different lenses. For example, I look at sports from an athlete lens, from an administrator lens, and obviously as a fan. I think the greatest thing about sports for me has been just the opportunities to build myself as a person and as a leader. 

It’s given me a certain amount of belief in myself, especially in situations where I’m out of my comfort zone. I feel like I can bounce back pretty quickly, even if I’m caught off guard. And, if I feel like, ‘Oh wow, I’m in over my head,’ I don’t stay in that place for long. Facing adversity is part of life, we just have to build mechanisms to bounce back.

Can you tell us about your experience competing in an Ironman Triathlon? 

To start off with, I am a wheelchair user, so I have a disability. That means I did 140 miles with my arms when I competed in the Ironman triathlon. Basically, it’s a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon run, so it’s actually 140.6 miles. That was when I was younger and had more energy than what I probably have today. When I think about going back to that Ironman, I’m like, ‘I don’t think I would do that anymore!’ But that was something that really taught me to kind of stay in the course even when things get difficult— after all, it is a really long way to get to the finish line.  

It took me 18 hours and three minutes to complete my very first Ironman triathlon. The next time I participated in an Ironman race, it took me about 16 hours to finish it. 

It was something that I really wanted to do, and you have to really want to do it because it’s a lot of training. I spent a lot of weekend days just riding. I would wake up and go for an eight- to ten-hour ride. Afterward, I’d come home, eat dinner, and go right to bed. It really takes full commitment to be able to do that. But that was just something that I wanted to accomplish. 

I started six different iron-distance triathlons and I completed two. There were some times that I got pulled off of the course somewhere during the bike [ride], and it was because there’s a bike cutoff time—which is actually a “swimming by” cutoff time. If you can’t complete the swim and bike in ten-and-a-half hours, then you’ll get taken off the course and you can’t finish the race. So I only have two finishes under my belt, but they were, for me, really great accomplishments and something that I feel I can be really proud of because I was undertaking a huge goal and something that most people would not consider doing.

You may have only finished two, but that’s two more than most of us have, so that’s pretty amazing!

Yeah, most people don’t even want to attempt it, let alone do it all with their arms and do it more than once! So I’m in that club kind of by myself.

How long did you spend training for those?

That’s a hard question because I feel like I’ve spent my whole life training to be an athlete to acquire those mental toughness skills. Likewise, I’ve spent a lifetime training my body to understand that pain is only temporary and that sometimes you’re going to be uncomfortable. So, in that way, I trained my whole life.

But when you break the races down individually, it was probably between six and ten months of training when I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this Ironman, and then I’m going to spend this time training.’ It’s a good deal of time because you’re training probably 25 hours a week. Your typical work week is 40 hours a week. I was always piling on 25 hours of training on top of a full-time job. It was busy! 

Can you talk a little bit about the advocacy work that you do for other wheelchair users and people who’ve experienced different disabilities?

I’ve done a lot of different things. I found out very, very quickly when I had my injury and ended up being a wheelchair user in a world that is not a hundred percent equipped for people who use wheelchairs. It can be really difficult to deal with the day to day of people’s attitudes and barriers and construction and architecture. In short, simply being able to get in and out and around different buildings can be a challenge for wheelchair users.

Every time I get the opportunity I put my voice out there as somebody who experiences disability—as someone who experiences some of these issues. I want people just to become educated and understand. 

At the same time, I also wanted to help other women who have experienced a disability. That’s when I started a camp. It was a four-day camp for female wheelchair users. During that camp, we worked on things like building confidence, building skills, and learning sports. It was also an opportunity to meet other people and build a support system for the women who came to the camp.

Even to this day—the camp ran from 2009 through 2018—people who came to the first camp are still in contact with each other on social media, sometimes meeting up and going to dinner or going for a workout. I think we really had the opportunity to build a community and just kind of have that place where you could go to ask questions, to have some help advocating for yourself, or just to understand how you can fit into the world with a disability—and still have a really positive and productive experience and life. 

Can you tell us more about your camp?

We typically had from about 15 to 18 women at a time. I think one year we had 21 women, which was a large camp. It was really fun because the women would come in on Thursday and were so timid and quiet. 

We had our home base in a lodge, which was also where we slept. It had a big dining room area and living room, so it was really nice. There was a fireplace in there and a nice big table to gather at to have meals. So, me and the volunteers—[who] helped me put the camp on—just kind of watched and observed how each of the participants came in and were really just their quiet selves.

But on the last night of camp, they were reformed people. They were like best friends with each other and they had talked a lot. They’d been through a lot because we were doing sports and fitness activities. Many of them were doing things that were out of their comfort zone or something that they’d never tried before.

They experienced having the other women cheering for them, which is so important. We don’t talk enough about how important it is to have cheerleaders. I think, no matter what you do, you want to have a very complete support system. That’s where the system is: it’s going to be those people who are mentors and the people that kind of coach you through the different kinds of things that you’re trying to do in your life. But then there are the cheerleaders, and those are the people that just keep you going and tell you that you can do it when you’re not sure of yourself. It’s important to have people who believe in you more than you believe in yourself. 

By the end of the weekend, they were each other’s cheerleaders. They were friends, they had bonded, they learned new skills. And by Sunday night—in that same room that was so quiet on Thursday—it was loud. Everybody was talking and laughing and just having a great time. It was just fun to watch this transformation. It was something that you just don’t normally see.

Who have you found to be your cheerleaders and your support system? 

First and foremost, my family. My family has always been there for everything that I’ve been through. We went through a lot when I had my injury, and we got to be very close during that time. I also have friends from kindergarten still in my life. I’m just one of those people that has always tried really hard to keep in touch with all of the people that I’ve crossed paths with.

I love to build relationships and build communities. I’ve had friends like that. I have friends from all of my sporting activities, such as teammates, coaches, even some of my competitors. And I really feel it’s so important to take that time to build relationships with people that even if you only run across them for a weekend out of your life, that doesn’t mean that you can’t follow up, especially in our world today when everybody is so connected.

About 15 or 16 years ago I did a photoshoot for an article, a magazine article. In this article, four women were being highlighted and I was one of them. I just recently reconnected with one of those women that was part of that photoshoot and article. I mean, we’ve literally spent maybe four hours together. Then when we reconnected recently, we were talking like we were just good old friends. So it’s just fun to try to build that with somebody and say, “Hey, I don’t know you very well, but I can get to know you, and maybe you’re going to be somebody who becomes really important in my life.”

Different kinds of people are in different parts of our lives, whether it’s my athlete friends or my work friends or my school friends. I feel like there’s room for everyone to be a part of my life. And I think that that’s how I’ve built my support system, with that thought in mind.

Relationships take work. It’s not that you just see somebody and say hi, and then that’s it. You have to be vulnerable. To make it work, you have to share parts of yourself. At the same time you also have to be willing to be a listener and listen to parts of them.

Not everybody is really willing to say, “We might not have anything in common, but let’s have a conversation and see where it goes, and maybe it will be something.” We judge people by the outside, but there are so many things that we have in common on the inside that it takes that exploration to get to that point where you can see those commonalities.

You’ve had all these experiences — all of your involvement in sports and your experience in sporting competitions and becoming a wheelchair user. Who has been your biggest inspiration in these different parts of your life?

I don’t know if I could pick just one person.

My mom was a huge inspiration in my life. I mean, she really taught me what was important. I think what I learned about building relationships—being friendly to people and talking to them and learning about them—that really came from my mom. My dad instilled in me a work ethic and the belief that I could do anything tha I wanted to do; it just would take some time and effort. I look up to my brothers because they’ve all been different. They’ve all played different roles in my life.

I’ve thought about who my childhood heroes were or people that I looked up to when I was a kid. There weren’t that many, and I don’t know why. I think partly because I had a very different life than what I saw depicted, in terms of magazines or television shows. I’m biracial; I was adopted. I was adopted by a white family and I don’t look like them. I’m half black, so I just always felt a little bit like I was kind of my own person and kind of out there on my own. I didn’t really have other women or people to look up to that were doing the things or experiencing the experiences that I had.

So, aside from my family, I really don’t have any inspirations from when I was younger. When I got to high school and I was really into gymnastics, I watched the 1984 Olympics. And I was enthralled with the gymnast and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to be an athlete. I want to compete at the highest levels.’ I don’t think anyone really famous, but just people who I cross paths with, who I just admire things about: what they did or who they were. Those are my inspiration. 

Imagine you could go back to your 10-year-old self and give her a piece of advice. What would you say to her? 

I think that I would tell her that the road of life is not easy. It’s not fair. You’re going to have trials and tribulations, but the important thing to remember is that you have a lot of built-in strength and resilience, and those are the things that will pull you through the difficult times. 

I feel like a lot of people look at me and they say, “Oh, I could never be you and do life in a wheelchair,” and things like that. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the fact that the human spirit really is resilient. We get caught in these difficult situations where we’re stuck in this loop of, ‘Well, life’s not fair. I just want to give up.’ It’s really important to dig deep and say, ‘You know what? This is uncomfortable. This is hard, but I know that I can do it. And I know that strength is within me, but I have to learn how to tap into it and to appreciate it, and to not compare myself to what somebody else is doing.’

I think that’s a lot of times where we go wrong, as we see all these people, whether it’s on social media, television, or in the movies. We think, ‘Oh, their lives are so great. They’re so easy because they’re beautiful and they’re rich and they have all these things.’ We all have our trials and tribulations, so we can’t compare what we’re going through to what somebody else is going through.

We have to really learn to be our own cheerleaders and say, ‘I can get through this. I know that I’ve got resources outside of me. I’ve got other people that I can turn to. Also, I’ve got things that I’ve learned in school. And I’ve got traits that I maybe picked up through sports or band, or all of these different undertakings.’

It’s just a matter of believing in yourself. Being patient and not comparing yourself to other people because the road is long, but it’s so rewarding. Along the way, you’re going to find that some of the worst things that happened to you in your life are some of the places where you’ve learned the best lessons and where you’ve grown the most, and where you can look back and be really proud that you have gotten through.

Would you say that’s true for you? That’s where you’ve learned the most: in the hard times?

Absolutely. Without a doubt,  I’ve learned the most in the hardest times. When I look back, that’s what stands out to me about what is interesting in my life. Anybody can be great when life is good. When life is bad, how do people act? Do they act strong? Or do they act empowered? Do they take initiative? I think when you do those things, that’s when you find your greatest success.

What does NonGirly mean to you?

I liked that it’s about not having to fit into a certain stereotype. Through my whole life, being biracial and now having a disability, and being female, we’ve got so many messages coming at us about how you need to be as a woman. I think it’s really important that young girls today realize that their strength and their ability to stand out is really in being unique.

I have really found that in my own life. Being different is hard because you think, ‘Oh, I’m just out here on my own.’ In reality, you’re standing out and above, you’re showing people you’re different.

I choose to do activities that some might say, ‘Oh, that’s not a girl’s activity,’ or, ‘Girls don’t do that.’ When you are true to yourself and what you want to be and who you want to be and how you want to get there, I think that is the most important message in being NonGirly. Don’t worry about fitting in perfectly, because it’s much more exciting to stand out.

When you’re doing something that nobody thought you could do, and when you’re doing something that even you didn’t think you could do, that’s what’s rewarding in life. It’s not about, ‘Can I reproduce you and look like you and act like you and, and do all of these things?’ It’s about, ‘I want to be me and that’s what’s going to make me stand out.’

I’ve realized sometimes I’ve tried to duplicate what somebody else is doing or think that what they’re doing is what I need to be doing. I realized that when I do that, I’m not happy. I’m just not happy with my life. When I do the things that are truly uniquely me, that’s when I find a lot more satisfaction with what I’m doing.

For the girls and the parents who are interested, will you tell them a little bit about your memoir?

Sure, I wrote a memoir; it came out in 2010. It is called Cycle of Hope and it’s the story of my injury and my accident, and how I kind of had to reinvent my life and come back to be a different version of myself. I share the struggles and I share the triumphs. 

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