Meg Fisher: Montana’s Paralympic-winning, 6-time World Champion

Photo from the Montanan.

Meg Fisher has six on and off-road triathlon World Championship titles, a slew of U.S. National Championship wins, and, as of a few weeks ago, a gold and silver medal in cycling from the 2012 Paralympics in London. In short, she’s a bad ass athlete. Given her palmarés, you might assume she’s been cycling since birth. But, Meg didn’t start her cycling career until several years after a tragic accident in 2002 that required doctors to amputate her left foot and claimed the life of her best friend. I spoke to Meg on her brief post-Paralympics stopover in Seattle (where she’s a physical therapy PhD candidate). We discussed her accident, her new found passion and talent for cycling and triathlon, the London Paralympics, balancing school and cycling, and more.

I gather that cycling is a relatively new sport for you. What was your background as an athlete before cycling?

Before I was injured I was a competitive tennis player. I played tennis in college at the University of Montana. I was the first one from my varsity tennis team in high school to play collegiate tennis. I always loved tennis. I’d been playing since I was three. Getting the opportunity to play in college was a dream come true.

I finished my freshman year and went back to Chicago to teach tennis. And in between tennis sessions, my best friend Sara Jackson and I were driving back to Missoula, Montana from Chicago. She was going to be an English teacher and she was getting her Masters in English. On the way, we got into a bad accident and the car rolled eight and a half times in the middle of South Dakota. It stopped on its roof and we were both very, very hurt. Sara ended up not surviving her injuries. I was life flighted from the accident to Rapid City emergency hospital where I underwent emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on my brain as well as to remove what had been ripped off of my left foot.

I woke up a week later from the coma and looked down and saw my foot. You know when you lay in bed under the sheets and you’ve got the lumps where your feet belong? I looked down and could see that my toes were gone on my left foot. I was thinking, “oh this is bad.” I immediately thought about my athletics. I identified as an athlete so to look down and see that part of my foot was gone, I was thinking “how’s that going to work?”

I spent a month in the hospital and they ended up removing my foot from the heel bone forward. They used muscle from my stomach and skin from my thigh to cover up the hole where the rest of my foot had been.

I was hurt June 30, 2002. I was life-flighted back to Chicago and was in the hospital for all of July or maybe the beginning of August. Then I began physical therapy. The physical therapists taught me how to sit up again, how to do all the basic functions of living. I had to relearn pretty much everything. Probably the most important therapist I ever went to was this woman named Vicky Condon. She was a friend from the tennis community in Chicago.

One day, Vicky took a rolling office chair from her basement. She was an older tennis player, very accomplished. She took me out on the tennis court. All my teammates were back at college. All my friends were back at college. Here I was kind of stranded and alone. I’d lost 30 pounds. I was a pretty sick person still. But she got me back out and gave me tennis lessons. She asked me to come to her tennis matches and give her pointers. She helped me get my old job back at the tennis club I used to work at. I was teaching tot tennis, the 3-5 years olds. This gave me purpose again. I was back on the court doing what I loved. I eventually got my prosthetic and started teaching junior tennis and doing some league play of my own.

I missed the Fall semester of my Sophomore year. I went back for Spring semester and tried to do all the things I wanted to do. But the problem was, I was getting the sensation of bones poking through the bottom of my foot. And the prosthetic was pretty awkward. I tried to play tennis and kept breaking it. It was really hard to be 20 and be really hobbled by my leg and pain.

So 11 months after my initial injury, I opted for a transtibial amputation, which is a below the knee amputation. I’d spoken with professionals and doctors. They said the best technology for amputees is for trans-tibial amputees so I could probably get back to hiking and running with one of the cool running prosthetics you see on the Olympics. I wanted to do those things. I didn’t want to be in pain any more. May of 2003 I had the rest of my leg amputated. Then 11 months after that I did my first triathlon.

2011 UCI World Championships in Roskilde, Denmark. Photo from Meg’s blog.

That leads right into my next question. How did you get into cycling after your injury?

For years I’d looked at triathletes as super athletes. Them and rugby players, who are super fierce competitors. With triathletes, I thought “how can one person do three sports in one day?” I ended up joining the rugby team first and played rugby for a bit. I got to tackle someone. Once I got to do that, it was enough for me. I can’t keep up with rugby players. They’re a little rough for me and drink a little too much. [laughter].

I stuck with triathlons though. My first triathlon was in 2004. It was the Grizzly tri. It’s the largest Sprint distance trialthlon in the United States.

I’d seen people doing it in years past and thought that they were fantastic athletes, so I signed up. My goal was to not be dead last. I hadn’t swam 1000 yards since my injury and certainly hadn’t biked 20k since my injury. But I met my goal. I was seventh from last. I crossed the finish line and low and behold I was a triathlete and nobody could take that away from me. It was a very, very powerful day for me. I certainly didn’t set any land speed records, but it was still very meaningful for me, emotionally.

How did you get from there to cycling at a world-championship level?

From there, I just kept doing triathlons. Missoula is really a hotbed for phenomenal triathletes. Linsey Corwin, the fastest Ironman in the US, is from Missoula. As I was getting into triathlons, she was starting to get her feet underneath her and move up in the ranks. Adam Jensen lives there. Ben Hoffman graduated from the University of Montana triathlon team. There’s a list of pro triathletes from Missoula and they were great role models for me.

Missoula is basically a big kid playground. People mountain biking, hang gliding (I haven’t done that one), skiing, cross-country skiing, you name it. The people there are so kind and were really great motivators. I just wanted to be like my friends and do what they were doing. I got into mountain biking because I got my dog Betsy. She’s still with me and she’s the coolest dog ever. She’s also my service dog.

Betsy always had a lot of energy and I couldn’t walk her or run her enough. So I got into mountain biking. It turns out if you can tire out a three-year-old boarder collie mix you get a little fit. I started doing off-road triathlons. Then I started doing 24 hour mountain bike races. I did my first 24 hour race on a team and we won. It was awesome. The second year, I signed up to do it solo. That year I met Sam Kavanagh. He’s from Bozeman, Montana and had lost his leg in an avalanche. He’s an amazing guy. He also happens to be on the US Paralympic cycling team. When I saw Sam at the 24 hour race I thought “oh my gosh, there’s someone like me.” I had heard of him, so it was really cool to get to meet him. I ended up winning the women’s category and coming in third overall at that race.

I was really pleased to have done so well against a bunch of able-bodied people. To think you’re the little one-legged girl doing OK at the 24 hour mountain bike race. Sam thought I did well so he got me in touch with Craig Griffin. He’s the US Paralympic coach. They invited me to a development camp at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California. I spent the winter at their training camp riding my bike and riding it hard. They thought “she’s an OK cyclist for a triathlete and a mountain biker” so they kept inviting me back. I went to a couple of camps with them. Then I went to Nationals that year. I missed the cutoff mark for the Worlds team, but I’d been spending too much time on my mountain bike to be honest. I didn’t earn the right to represent our country.

The next year, I spent a lot of time on my road bike, riding around Missoula. I went to Nationals in Bend, OR and got third, earning my spot on the World Championship team. Worlds was in Quebec, Canada. I surprised everybody and myself and won the road race and the time trial. It was absolutely fantastic. Everything has sort of just kept going like that from there.

In the meantime, I was working on my triathlon career. I was the first female athlete to ever do an off-road triathlon. It was an Xterra event. I did the Regional Championship, then the National Championship in Lake Tahoe. I won Nationals two years in a row. I also won the World Championships in Maui for two years. Then I started doing ITU, which was the emerging paratriathlon. I ended up racing in Australia and Budapest, Hungary. I brought home the gold those two years as well. I’ve won six world championships, one paralympic gold and one paralympic silver.

London 2012. Photo by Chrissie Taylor.

Having just returned from the London Paralympics, tell me what it was like competing and winning at the highest levels of your sport.

It was the most … I’m still searching for words to try and encapsulate the magnitude of that experience. It’s so hard. The world just converges on one spot. The cafeteria is a conglomeration of countries. There’s food from everywhere. People speaking languages you don’t understand. The colors, the sounds, it’s all overwhelming. And that’s just the cafeteria.

The crowds in London were phenomenal. I believe the Paralympics had higher attendance than the Olympics. The velodrome, A.K.A. the Pringle, was out of this world. It’s a brand new track, it’s crisp. They heat the velodrome, unlike a lot of the indoor velodromes in the States. So it’s hotter inside, which leads to faster times. The layout is just perfect. It’s what a track cyclist wants.

I competed in four events in London. The 3k Pursuit, 500M time trial, Road Time Trial, and Road Race. The first day of competition, August 30th, started off with the 3K Pursuit. My classification is C4. I don’t really know what the C stands for. There are five categories for challenged athletes on upright bikes. I’m not a track cyclist. I haven’t been a track cyclist. There’s not even a velodrome in the state of Montana, so my only experience on the track had been some trips to Colorado Springs and LA.

A couple days earlier, on a training ride on the track, I’d broken a world record by three seconds. So I had a lot of confidence, I was feeling good, going into the Pursuit. But, you can’t replicate race-day conditions during a training ride. So i was trying to calm my head down, calm my heart down and focus on my time splits. I ended up going out a little hot for my first race, but was still two seconds off the world record. I knew it was a fast track and that my competition was fierce, so I didn’t know if my time would hold and get me into the gold medal round.

My time ended up holding, but I did not get the fastest time of the quarter finals. My competitor Susan Powell from Australia broke the current world record, so she had the fastest time going into the finals. My coach tried to encourage me and remind me that I have staying power and usually my fastest times come later in the day. He was trying to build up my confidence and I really appreciated it. I knew I had it in me somewhere to go fast, I just had to put the pieces together. The gun went off and Susan and I were racing. I led for the first six laps. Then with six laps to go, she started inching up on me. I was easing up a couple 10ths (of a second) cause I went out so hot. I generally go out fast, slow down, then I’m able to take a couple 10ths off with my closing laps. But Susan did the same thing and she was just lowering her times faster until she pulled ahead of me. Susan ended up beating me by about a second and won the gold. Susan’s a phenomenal athlete. I was just so happy to be out there. My mom had flown out to watch. My teammates were there. To come home with the Silver medal at my first day of racing at the Paralympics, the first Silver for USA, it was such an honor. I’m really grateful I could bring that back for Team USA.

A few days later, we went out to the road race course at Brands Hatch. It’s a former Formula 1 race track, and they still race motorcycles there. Motorcycle racing is really big in the UK. The Brands Hatch race track is a whole lot of pain. It’s either up or down. Nothing in between. The road time trial is my event and the course, with its steep, punchy climbs and sharp cornering, suited me well as a mountain biker. I knew that the climbs would be decisive in this race. So whenever there was a climb I knew I had to hurt more than anyone else and get up it quick. And that’s how it worked out. I was able to climb and descend a little faster, corner a little better, just enough that i ended up beating Susan Powell by 24 or 26 seconds to take the Gold.

When I found out that I actually won, I couldn’t believe it. I started to cry. Medals represent more than just me. It’s something I can bring home. They represent my doctors and physical therapists who’ve helped me. I feel like Sara is looking down on me and I can show her that … how do I put this. Sara was the best person I’ve ever known. She deserved to live. She was such a kind, altruistic person and such a role model that I want to live up to her memory and her spirit and do the best I can do. I want to do well for her and her family. So it was a really emotional thing for me. My mom, my family, my partner were all there with me. They’ve all sacrificed so much to help me achieve this dream. I can bring this medal back to my classmates at the University of Washington who’ve helped me study and encouraged me to pursue this. To my professors who’ve allowed me the privilege to do this.

On that note, being a doctoral student and racing at your level are both obviously huge time commitments. Has it been hard to balance the two?

Definitely. I can’t say I’ve done either one of them to the best of my ability, unfortunately. When you graduate in a health profession you’re going to be working on real people. These are peoples’ lives and they’re coming to you with real problems. They’re coming to you to relieve their pain. Or maybe they’ve just had shoulder surgery and they just want to be able to pick up their child. You’ve gotta come to that scenario and be prepared to bring your best because they deserve your best. Similarly with cycling, I’ve got sponsors. And I’ve got my family who’ve enabled me to chase down this cycling dream. They deserve my best. I don’t want to let my teammates down. My goodness, I don’t want to let my country down. You wear the stars and stripes, it’s no small thing. They both deserve my full attention, but they had to share the spotlight.

In the end, I feel like a competent first-year physical therapy student. I know I did the best I could. There were a lot of times where cycling actually lost out because I was trying to do my best and give my classmates everything they deserve.

There were a lot of sleepless nights. I didn’t get away on the weekends. I didn’t go to bars. I didn’t do a lot of things that other people might’ve because every Saturday and Sunday I was spending six, seven, eight hours on a bike. Then I was studying. Every night, I would study until I was too tired. Then I would set up my bike on my porch on the trainer and ride intervals.

I did the best I could and If I’m still fast when Rio comes around, I won’t have school to contend with. I’ll have work, of course, but I’ll be able to put a lot more into my cycling.

Now that you’ve got World Championship titles and Paralympic medals to your name, what’s your next big cycling goal?

This weekend I’m headed back to Missoula and I’m bringing my mountain bike. My goal is to have some fun on the trails. I think short term my goal is to not lose the passion. Cycling can sometimes feel like a job, but in the end, riding a bike is just plain fun. You can get out and see things that drivers pass by. For me, I really like riding my mountain bike and getting out into the backcountry where you don’t see or hear anything. It’s just peaceful solitude. I want to get back to that. I enjoy that about biking. It’s part of my sanity, especially living here in a big city. Riding my bike on the weekends is something that settles my soul.

Beyond that, hopefully I can keep my speed and my passion and earn a spot heading to the world championships next year. I don’t want to be too greedy, but I’d love to win some more stripes.

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