Being blind is no handicap to Tricia Cronin of Chelmsford as she bicycles across the country. It's her broken foot that puts her at a disadvantage.
Cronin, 30, is pedaling from Los Angeles to Atlanta on the back of a tandem piloted by 41-year-old Karen Fitzgerald of Agawam, assistant athletic director at Our Lady of the Elms College in Springfield and assistant cycling coach for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes.
They started the 3,002-mile Tenet ParaAmerica Bicycle Challenge two weeks ago with two other tandem pairs and five other riders.
Cronin, who lost her eyesight to diabetes almost two years ago, tried riding a tandem last fall and "knew after being on the bike for probably two seconds that I loved it. For me, it's regaining a lot of the freedom that I lost."
When her right foot got swollen at the end of March, she didn't realize how serious it was. Neuropathy from diabetes means decreased sensation in the hands and feet. It turned out three bones were broken, and she doesn't know how or when that happened.
She's wearing an air cast off the bike, and she has been able to pedal half-days -- typically 40 miles -- and gradually increase her endurance. Tuesday she biked 64 miles and felt great, she said in a telephone interview from Globe, Ariz.
Blind cyclists are "still able-bodied. We just can't see the scenery," Cronin said. One of her goals is "to make people aware of what physically challenged people are capable of doing, and to tell other people with disabilities just to go out there and live, be physically active. Anything is possible."
The riders are making stops at hospitals and rehabilitation centers owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp., the tour's primary sponsor. Two Tenet employees, physical therapists in Florida, are on the 42-day tour.
Seattle-based Tim Kneeland & Associates is running the tour as a fund-raiser for USABA.
ParaAmerica is the brainchild of Peter Paulding of Plymouth, cycling coach for the USABA. Paulding, 47, and his wife, Ruth, 52, are biking ParaAmerica on a tandem.
While USABA cyclists are competitive in mainstream races, this year they want to put the spotlight on the Paralympics, the international competition for the disabled that will follow the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
The Paralympics are nothing like the better-known Special Olympics, in which everyone gets medals for doing whatever they can. Athletes must qualify for the Paralympics in standard events with no special allowances.
There will be 125 cyclists allowed (not counting tandem pilots) in the 1996 Paralympics, fewer than the 155 disabled riders from 19 countries who biked in the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. Track cycling is being added for the first time next year. There are separate bike races for blind riders, amputees and cyclists with cerebral palsy.
U.S. Paralympic hopefuls brought home three silver medals from the World Cycling Championships for the Disabled last June in Belgium. John G. Reinhart, 29, of Portland, Ore., who is missing one arm and one leg, placed second in the time trial and the road race. And the tandem team of Mike Rosenberg of Eugene, Ore., and Pam Fernandes of Brighton came in second in their road race.
It was Fernandes, also blind from diabetes, who helped motivate Cronin to get into cycling. Fernandes, 33, won the mixed tandem road race with Rosenberg at the USCF Masters Nationals in 1993, her rookie year of cycling. Last year she won the Boston Road Club's tandem criterium series. She also won the road and time trial titles at the USABA national championships and was named the USABA's 1994 Female Athlete of the Year.
"The first half of Pam's story was exactly like mine," Cronin said. "And she was so inspirational, I thought, 'Wow, blind people really can be cool.' "
Another up-and-coming blind rider, 34-year-old Ray Collins of Plymouth, has been selected for a $2,800 "scholarship" this fall -- a free spot on a 23-day cross-country bike tour run by ultramarathon cyclists Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo. Peter Paulding will be his pilot.
Other disabled cyclists are showing their stuff on the AXA
World Ride, a 12,000-mile tour around the world in 14 stages. Rory McCarthy of
Bath, Maine, who has muscular atrophy in his legs and rides a tricycle with hand
cranks, is one of six disabled "core" riders -- and the only New Englander --
who plan to ride the entire trip. The tour started in Atlanta last month and the
second stage ended in Boston on April 7. The third stage, which began in
Ireland, ends today in Paris.
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