Swanson, Rachfal chase Paralympic hardware in London
by Sarah Eberspacher - Aug. 28, 2012 06:27 PM
They train together. They travel together. They compete together.
“And we haven’t killed each other yet!” said Dave Swanson, one half of the U.S. Paralympics tandem cycling team.
Swanson, 35, and his teammate Clark Rachfal practice the athletic equivalent of a long-distance relationship. Swanson works and rides in Tucson. Rachfal, 27, trains at his home in Annapolis, Md., and commutes to his job with Verizon Communications in Washington, D.C. The pair get by through most of the year on individual workouts administered by their coach, and Rachfal hops on a plane every few weeks to Arizona so he and Swanson can get in training time together.
It might not be ideal, but considering that since 2009 they haven’t missed qualifying for the track and road World Championships, it hasn’t impeded their performance too much. And after narrowly missing out on a trip to Beijing, Rachfal and Swanson head to the London Paralympics with one goal in mind:
“Medals,” Swanson said. “We’re looking forward to soaking up the experience, but we’re there to do a job. We’re there to do what we prepared to do.”
Those preparations started not so long ago. Swanson is a sighted pilot for vision-impaired or blind cyclists. He first piloted for a Tucson-based blind cyclist in 2006, and after some initial success, the pair headed for Colorado Springs to participate in a development camp hosted by the United States Association of Blind Athletes.
The partnership between Swanson and his first cycling partner did not work out. However, soon after he began trading e-mails with Rachfal, who he had met at the camp. Swanson invited Rachfal out for a preliminary ride.
“Not only is it a working relationship, it’s a personal relationship,” Rachfal said. “If you don’t get along on the bike, or you don’t get along off the bike, if your riding styles aren’t similar or your personalities aren’t similar, it’s going to make it very difficult to be in that close proximity for extended periods of time.”
The initial training went well enough that the pair agreed to compete in the U.S. Paralympics National Track Championships in 2007. After only about 10 days of actually riding together, Swanson and Rachfal were riding at the national level. They won silver and have been picking up hardware together ever since.
Rachfal joked that his relatively recent introduction to the sport before teaming up with Swanson – he first rode in 2004 and started getting serious about cycling in 2006 – means he’s mimicked his training partner, for better or worse.
“I was so new that I picked up all of Dave’s good and bad habits,” Rachfal said. “In a lot of respects, though, it made it a lot easier for our performances to evolve as a team because we’re pretty much lockstep.”
Not that it’s easy. When he isn’t riding with Swanson, Rachfal uses a stationary bike in Maryland, and although he says it’s great for endurance training, it can’t truly simulate a real race experience.
“When you’re riding in a group, not only do you have variations from wind and change in the roads, you have other people you have to account for,” Rachfal said. “You don’t get that on the trainer.”
Enter Rachfal’s monthly trips to Tucson, when he and Swanson push through track workout after track workout, then hop on the tandem bike a few mornings a week for group rides with other area cyclists. In addition to being great training, Swanson said the morning group rides are an ego boost, as local riders often anticipate a tough time keeping up when Rachfal and his pilot arrive to train.
“When we show up, everyone knows what’s going to happen,” Swanson said. “It’s flattering for us, but then the other part is the fact that we’re representing our sport and changing the notion that the Paralympics is this B-level participation sport.”
The pair hopes their performance in London will further stifle that stereotype, though Swanson said the last five to 10 years have seen an increasingly deep field of competitors, anyways.
“A couple seconds over the course of a half-hour race moves you from third to eighth now,” he said. “Before, maybe it was just third to fifth. There’s just that many more tacking up at the front.”
Maddening? Perhaps, especially if those competitors snatch the hardware in London that Swanson and Rachfal have trained so hard to earn. But it also means Paralympics cycling is becoming increasingly elite, and that can only be a positive for the sport, Swanson said.
“On the one hand, it’s frustrating because now if you don’t do everything perfect, you could tumble through the top 10,” he said. “On the other side, competition is moving to where it ought to be. It should be really hard to do this.
“It’s the best in the world.”
Dave Swanson is a sighted pilot for vision impaired and blind cyclists. His current cycling partner is Clark Rachfal, who splits his time between his home in Annapolis, Maryland and Tucson to train with Swanson.