Paraplegic cyclist Merlin van Gelderen pushes past his disabilities and resets the boundaries for an athlete.
BY MARIE KOLTCHAK
Under a brilliant morning sky in Seattle’s Magnuson Park, Merlin van Gelderen and I ride north on the Burke-Gilman Trail, merging into a fluorescent stream of walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters, dogs and kids soaking up the late summer sun and chilly Lake Washington breezes.
Handsome, buff and soft-spoken, my newly minted cycling companion tells me about his life as we maintain a leisurely pace. Riding alongside, I sporadically fall behind to accommodate oncoming trail users. Now and again the wind snatches words away and I pedal harder to catch up.
Husband, father and systems engineer, van Gelderen is also an athlete with disabilities.
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I learn, as he turns the hand crank with his powerful arms, that this isn’t a guy who got injured, worked hard and got better (although that’s true), but is also someone dealing with grueling and ongoing health issues, any one of which would bring most of us to a halt. Daunting and insightful, it also feels intimidating and tender.
I’ve wondered who rides handcycles, and why. To that end I contacted Outdoors For All, a Seattle-based organization that provides adaptive and therapeutic recreation and equipment for children and adults with disabilities, hoping they could introduce me to someone using a handcycle. I figured I’d find a cool story about someone who had fought a hard-won battle and now rode a trike. The End. But there is always more to a story, and van Gelderen’s is by no means simple or predictable.
This is a hell of a list: Bike accident/multiple broken bones, spinal fusion/eventual return to hiking, biking and skiing. Subsequent discovery of rare venous malformation in spine/hemorrhaging/permanent spinal cord injury (SCI)/paraplegia. Malignant brain tumor/surgery/proton radiation. Too much torque on leg/broken femur, with pins and more surgery, plus chronic, unremitting pain. Have I left anything out?
I am boggled by what can unfold in one lifetime and am humbled by his perseverance in the face of bad luck and enormous change. What was it again, I complained about at breakfast?
Spinal-cord injuries have an impact on every aspect of a person’s life. “Being disabled and in a wheelchair really narrows your field. It’s a life of sitting,” van Gelderen said. “There’s no getting up and going for a walk to stretch. It’s all transfers, from bed to chair to bed to chair….”
“What most people do not realize is that having to live with a SCI is so much more than just not walking. It affects everything below the injury level, and your body reacts differently to seemingly normal things…. Learning to live with an SCI takes time. You need to settle into your new life. It’s different than it was before, and that takes time to accept. You don’t have to like it, but it’s happened and you settle into it. Absolutely it’s devastating and emotions will overcome you from time-to-time, but you are still you, it’s just different.”
During physical therapy in 2014, he learned of local outdoor recreational opportunities while sifting through a binder stuffed with information.
In the beginning he felt overwhelmed and had little desire to try anything. But a friend, and fellow SCI survivor, encouraged him to try adaptive kayaking through Outdoors For All.
When van Gelderen, 53, an avid cyclist, spied a recumbent trike, things really took off.
The staff at Outdoors For All assessed and fitted him with an Invacare Top End Force G ‒ a 27-speed, hand-crank recumbent trike.
“I couldn’t believe how liberating it was just to be moving along at more than a slow walking pace … horizons are greatly expanded,” said van Gelderen, who lives in Seattle. “Suddenly you are cruising with the rest of the able-bodied world along the Burke-Gilman Trail. Now it’s not so obvious that my legs don’t work. Kids, parents, other cyclists, walkers all comment, ‘cool bike’ … it is wonderful to get out.”
The Invacare trike lists for over $4,000, a figure often impossible to add to devastating medical expenses. A mix of grant funding and contributions from individual donors helps underwrite the cost of adaptive equipment, assessments and instruction at Outdoors For All.
Since getting back on the road in 2014, his riding has evolved. He negotiates traffic and has stretched his endurance to 31 miles.
“My arms might be large, but it’s still nothing compared to legs,” van Gelderen said. “So you tire them out long before you raise your cardio-vascular input.”
Outdoor recreational opportunities also benefit families scrambling to make things work. “When he goes cycling, it feels good to me because he is doing a sport he used to love,” said Victoria Raymond, van Gelderen’s wife. “It’s a huge step in a positive direction. I also love that he gets out of the house, out of the chair, meets new people and most importantly, no longer feels disabled. Cycling allows for all that to happen.”
Now recuperating from surgery to restore motion at the hips, van Gelderen does physical therapy to maintain and improve flexibility and mobility.
He’d like to get out more next year and head south on the Burke-Gilman.“The physical and emotional break is tremendous and you will return with a smile on your face,” he said.
When van Gelderen and I ride along the trail, people check out his handcycle as they zoom by. Heads turn, and some exclaim, ‘Cool bike!’
Little do they know that an even cooler guy rides it.
More about Outdoors for All: Annually more than 2,400 children and adults with disabilities get outside and exercise thanks to the training and support of more than 700 volunteers through Outdoors For All. Founded in 1978 at the Summit as Snoqualmie as a ski school to teach downhill skiing to children with disabilities, the foundation’s programs now include snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, cycling, hiking, river rafting, kayaking, day camps, rock-climbing, camping and custom events. To learn more about Outdoors For All visit: https://outdoorsforall.org/
Marie Koltchak is an avid cyclist who grew up on Long Island and lives on Vashon Island. She works for The Seattle Times in Resale and Permissions, and believes chocolate has magical powers.
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