For Greta Neimanas, her Paralympic goals are right on track
Great film directors often recall their first experience at the movies, rapturously describing the wave of cinematic sounds and images. World-class chefs tend to recall a special meal, obsessing on a spice's smell or a tomato's taste. For Greta Neimanas, her first experience with track cycling inspired a similar flood of passion.
"The biggest thing was the speed and the sound of the track," she said, returning mentally to the Olympic velodrome in Athens, Greece, where she was a spectator at the 2004 Paralympic Games. "The track actually makes a lot of noise, because the surface is wood. It's a very distinct sound."
At that moment, looking down the velodrome´s steep banking, she thought, "I need to try this. Where do I sign up?"
Neimanas was in Athens because she'd entered an essay contest with the theme "What Ability Means to Me" through the Paralympic Academy Program. She was just 16, and once she tried cycling, she fell in love with the sport's simplicity. "You have super skinny tires, one gear, and no breaks. If you slow down, you're doing it wrong. It's a very pure feeling."
Neimanas, now 23, grew up in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood, the oldest of three children. "I had a normal childhood," she said. "I did my homework and ate my veggies. I was born without my arm, but my parents never treated me any differently." Her left arm was missing below the elbow at birth, but the exact reason is unknown. "The best guess is that my arm was wrapped in something while it was developing, and that stopped its growth," she said. "Just sort of a fluke thing, really."
Both her parents teach high school art, but Neimanas claims not to have inherited their artistic sensibilities. "I could not draw a circle to save my life," she said, an ironic contrast to her future of circling a velodrome. But she maintains an interest in photography, and her blog links to richly-detailed photos she has taken of desert landscapes and architectural details, a stream of images in which humans are largely absent. "I'm more interested in decay and nonliving organisms," Neimanas said.
As a child, Neimanas went to a Montessori school where soccer was her "main gig." Her classes were small, and her lack of a forearm drew little attention, particularly since her classes tended to contain the same group of students each year. "Only the first days at school, some of the new kids would say, 'Oh that's different' or 'That's weird' or 'That's a big deal.' That disappeared after a couple days," she said.
At a young age, Neimanas fell in love with soccer, playing from age six till she was 18. Then came the trip to Athens, where she not only discovered track cycling, but realized that her soccer skills transferred well to the bike. "You don't have to kick anything," she said, comparing cycling to soccer, "But the biggest thing (for both sports) is having a good work ethic.
"You can get fit and learn track cycling´s technique, but you can't learn that mental attitude, that stubbornness," Neimanas said. "In cycling, it's not always the strongest person who wins a race, it's the smartest. It's the person who refuses to quit, the person who turns themselves inside out."
And what exactly does an inside-out person look like? "Until you really experience (pushing your body so far), it's hard to understand," Neimanas said, smiling. "It's going as hard as you can, until you don't think you can go any further, and then going further. It's mustering every last bit of energy. Your legs are burning, your lungs are on fire, and you have drool and boogers down your face. It's not a pretty look, that's for sure." Turning herself inside out has brought advantages: in 2008, she competed at the Beijing Paralympic Games, finishing fourth in the time trial, fifth in the 3000, and eighth in the 500.
Neimanas now lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, where she is preparing for the 2012 Paralympic Games. "I'm training for the road, and not just the track," Neimanas said. "So my goal is to run the full program -- the time trial, road race, pursuit, and 500." Between practice sessions at the velodrome and strength workouts at the OTC, Neimanas is chipping away at her undergraduate requirements at Pikes Peak Community College.
In her spare time, she also competes against pro women in road race events. Her bike is the same as theirs, with two modifications. "Because I have one hand, I need the brakes and shifters on the right side, so I can operate them while riding," she said. "For the brakes, I use a cable splitter that allows me to pull both brake calipers with one brake lever. For the front derailleur, I use a time trial shifter, or bar end shifter, at the end of the drop to change from the big to little ring." Except for these small changes to the handlebars, Neimanas´ bike looks just like everyone else´s.
For her road race events, Neimanas finds that many competitors don't even notice that she has one arm. "People do a lot of double takes," she said. "They'll say, 'That's a cool tattoo sleeve, or a cool arm warmer.' They don't recognize it as a prosthetic."
It's only after the race that her competitors will offer their reactions. "Someone will come up and say, 'I was sitting on your wheel (which is cycling speak for resting in one's draft and not contributing to the race) and had no idea you had one hand,'" she said. To this, she'll respond, "Oh, why were you sitting on my wheel the whole time, wheel sucker?"
Niemanas' independent spirit is visible in her actions and words. "Honestly, I don't want to be treated any different than any other athlete. Having one arm doesn't make me a remarkable person," she said, cringing at stories that sentimentalize her accomplishments. "I don't want any article to say, 'It's such an amazing achievement that you can brush your teeth in the morning.' At the end of the day, we're all bike racers. "
Despite seeing little difference between herself and other bike racers, Niemanas noted a number of differences between Paralympic and Olympic sports. For Paralympic cycling, the fields of competitors are much smaller, creating a different dynamic, as few competitors have teammates on whom to rely. "It turns into an every-man-for-himself situation." Neimanas attests that Paralympic racing is just as challenging and exciting as other Olympic events, but media exposure is limited.
"Very few people know we exist," she said, referring to the Paralympic cycling team. "We'll go to the world championships -- the biggest event of the season, of the sport -- and it's a good turnout if a hundred people come out and watch the race, or if two sections of the track are filled." Meanwhile, the events' coverage is often limited to a slow Internet stream over a webcam, and even those images are usually highly pixelated. Paralympic athletes still have a long way to go in the fight for media equality. "Bob Costas is not doing the commentary for any of our races," Neimanas deadpanned.
With hundreds of athletes such as Neimanas turning themselves inside out for Olympic dreams, surely the media can turn things right side up and give more coverage to Paralympic athletes. "We just want to be respected and treated as athletes," she said.
In the meantime, Neimanas focuses on what she can control: her training and racing. "I just finished a World Cup in Sydney, Australia, where I placed second in the road race and time trial," she said. The next significant race on her schedule is Road Nationals, June 20-26 in Augusta, Georgia.
Neimanas' outlook remains positive. "People see that I have one hand and sometimes their first reaction is pity, or to think, 'Oh, that's too bad that such a terrible thing happened to her,'" Neimanas said. "I don't think that at all. Yeah, sure, maybe it's not the 'ideal situation' to be in, but it's all that I've ever known. Because of my 'disability,' I've met some of my best friends, traveled around the world, and have had experiences that an able-bodied person wouldn't necessarily have had. I don't think I'm all that different from anybody else."
Still, given her dedication to her sport, and her determination to excel, Neimanas may soon find herself standing out among her competitors.