Becoming an Adaptive Athlete 

About: Annijke (she/her) is an adaptive mountain biker, para off road cyclist, and adaptive athlete. In 2021, Annijke sustained a spinal cord injury during a mountain bike accident.  Now, she is back to sports and living as a full time wheelchair user.  Outside of loving mountain biking and being outdoors, Annijke also is passionate about making the outdoors and mountain biking a safe space for all.

My path to becoming an adaptive / para athlete began with a tragic accident in 2021.  I was biking at my favorite place, Angel Fire Bike Park, when I got into an accident, broke my back, sustained a spinal cord injury, and became paralyzed from the chest down.   Three days after my accident I decided I wanted to get an adaptive mountain bike, the Bowhead Reach. Every day in the ICU, then in the trauma unit, and then at Craig Hospital for rehab I would wonder where I would ride my new bike, if I would race, would I try other types of para cycling.  I hadn’t even considered my life as a full-time wheelchair, only my life as an adaptive / para athlete.  I focused as much time as I could on dreaming up my new life as an adaptive athlete.   Adaptive mountain biking, therapeutic recreation, and adaptive sports became the number one focus of my life.  Focusing on adaptive sports allowed me to move through the tragedy and start a new life.  

Three months after my accident, I got my new adaptive mountain bike, the Bowhead Reach, and began the process of learning to ride.  My Bowhead Reach is all electric, with an articulating front end, three wheels – two in the front, one in the back, and suspension on all the wheels.  When I sit on the bike my legs are in front of me and my waist is strapped in.  To operate the bike I lean and utilize the articulation.  Even though it’s all electric it’s a full-body workout. My whole body gets sore after long rides or multiple days of adventure.  

I spent the summer of 2022 riding in all sorts of places, Angel Fire Bike Park, Angle Fire, New Mexico; Fruita, Colorado; Fernie, British Columbia; Panorama Resort, Panorama, British Columbia; Nederland, Colorado; Moab, Utah and a few other cool spots! It was quite the first season I embarked on.  In addition to trying adaptive / para cycling, in 2022 I also tried: archery, fly fishing, trap shooting, tennis, nordic skiing, and surfing.  It’s safe to say that I got to try so many adaptive sports in that first calendar year of being a wheelchair user.  

Things started to shift for me in September of 2022, I was a year and 2 months out from my accident and  I was ready for a change. Up until that point, I had been doing 20 hours of appointments like PT, OT, acupuncture, massage, and adaptive exercise a week.  I was starting to burn out a bit.  It’s really hard focusing all of your time, energy and money coming back from a tragic accident.  The recovery grind had started to wear on me. I just wanted to get back to life and really build on my life as an adaptive athlete.  My partner and I packed up our life in Denver, Colorado, and headed West to the land of all year biking and temperate climate, and beach views. 

I started to set some real big athletic goals – I wanted to get a para off-road gravel bike / adaptive gravel bike, the Bowhead RX, and I wanted to race it at SBT GRVL (A premier Gravel race that takes place in Steamboat Springs, Colorado).  The Bowhead RX is an incredible adaptive bike.  The bike is similar to the Bowhead Reach but it’s hand crank and e-assist – no throttle.  I wanted to see what I was capable of – I wanted a challenge.  I was craving endurance, I was craving pushing myself physically.  I started to put together a plan for the 2023 season. What would training look like? What would nutrition look like?  What would my life look like with this new change and focus?  

Bikes are expensive, and adaptive bikes are even more expensive. It was going to be a few months before I was able to get my gravel bike.   In November we moved to California. The week we moved, I looked on Facebook Marketplace for a road handcycle.  I wanted something that was going to get me outside and on my favorite bike path that hugs the coastline and has amazing views.  A few days later I found a bike that was located just a few blocks from my house.  My partner and I drove to pick it up.  It was bright red with FLAMES painted on it. It was my new beach cruiser. It had one wheel in the front and two in the back.  It was low to the ground and extremely hard to get in and out of.  The first ride I did was three miles, and then I went up to 6 miles.  The bike had no e-assist and I started to become a bit limited because I didn’t want to put too much strain on my shoulders.  It would be just a few more months until I could finally get my Bowhead RX.  

Your arms are ¼ of the strength of your legs.  Learning to use my arms for everything as a full time wheelchair user was a challenge the first few months after my accident.  A year and 9 months after my accident, I’m still learning how to use my arms for everything.  I began to question if my shoulders would hold up riding an e-assist handcycle?   I’ve had bad shoulders for quite some time.  And from an athletic standpoint, you need to be cognizant of the load and strain you put on them.  I wanted to really make sure I was strong enough before I got my new adaptive gravel bike. 

Slowly, my plans of training for the gravel race were really starting to come together. I had been accepted into the Ride For Racial Justice team for 2023.  My sponsors and partners were lining up for the year. I had a solid nutrition sponsor – UnTapped.  I started going to the gym and using the stationary hand crank cycle and started to dream of the race.  The stationary hand crank cycle allowed me to ride when I was limited by the weather or in time.  Working with my coach and PT, Paul Birchard, MPT, I focused on strength training while I waited for my bike.  

As an adaptive athlete, I’d had to be much more conscious of my nutrition intake as well. Why?  I only have access to ~50% of my body right now.  This means my fueling strategy, and general caloric intake would be different.  I started to build my nutrition plan.  My go tos are: Lemon Tea Mapleaid – usually 1 serving per bottle; Coffee UnTapped Energy Gels; Maple UnTapped Energy Gels; and Maple / Raspberry and Lemon Waffles.  I try to eat every ½ hour of activity and I’m diligent about it. I *save* the Lemon Waffles as a treat for ½ way through an effort because they’re beyond delicious and *I deserve it.* 🙂 

I got my adaptive gravel bike in April 2023  on the last day of the Sea Otter Classic and went on my first training ride just a few days after.  Beginning the bike training was incredible.  

I quickly built on the bike fitness starting with 6 mile rides and going all way up to 10 miles, 20 miles, and 30 miles in a matter of weeks.   I have been able to see more and go further on this bike than on my Bowhead Reach.  

I’m still training for my race and still in the middle of my season.  I’m still building fitness.  After my race I plan on continuing to train and have my eyes on some longer distance adventure rides and feats!  My new bike is my endurance machine,  my adventure vehicle, my race rig and more importantly, it’s marked a new phase in my path to becoming an adaptive athlete. 

Not much has stayed the same for me since my accident, but remaining an athlete has.  Being able to call myself an athlete, set goals like an athlete and train like an athlete has helped me heal mentally, physically and spiritually from my accident.