By Orge Castellano
The road was slightly wet when the crowd arrived at Pontal, an early cloudy grey sky above was silently threatening to ruin the day – but in Brazil the sunshine comes out no matter what-. The crowds surrounded the cycling path patiently waiting for the riders to pass, most of them only will see a rapid flash swapping in from of their eyes, barely would they see the competitor’s face, but that’s enough, people of Brazil never get to see action like this so close and many have never seen Paralympians compete at all. For many, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. The racers are easily distinguished by their patriotic colors: red and yellow for China, green and red for the Italians, the Team USA racers clad in a proud red, white, and blue. Two Americans were scheduled to compete at the men’s road race C1-2-3. Cyclist superstar and previous Paralympic champion Joe Berenyi was ready, but newcomer Billy Lister, making his Paralympic debut in Rio, was nowhere to be seen. The buzzer sounded and the cyclists aggressively pedaled away from the board showing DNS [Did Not Start] next to Billy’s name. Some USA fans clung to the fences not far from stunned and confused members of the press. Where’s this racer? Why did he not start?
Billy, as everybody calls him, has always been a fighter, multifaceted athlete, and constantly opened to new challenges, willing to start from scratch again and again. In addition to athletic ability, he has a major gift of being able to reinvent himself; but reinvention itself usually comes at a high price. At 15, Billy wasn’t expecting his life to be dramatically changed overnight in a 180 degree spin that left him a different person. He spent weeks receiving treatment in a hospital bed for something the teenager had never heard of, but quickly became an intrinsic part of him. He was diagnosed with a rare and incisive brain abnormality known as an AVM (arteriovenous malformation) that in most cases needs to be corrected through extensive and acute Stereotactic Radiosurgery. The procedure was a success, but roughly three months later Billy experienced severe swelling in his brain, and he suffered what his doctors and parents had been fearing the most, a stroke. He could hardly walk nor move with ease due to a full left side hemiparesis. Frustration grew as simple tasks, like holding a cup or getting dressed, became increasingly burdensome. He noticed his life moving dramatically backwards. “Whereas most strokes are sudden bursts of light, mine was a slow and regressive process” he says.
Billy refused to be stopped and continued attending sport practices and playing with his team. He was not defeated; stubborn, refused to be held back, and eventually received the scholastic award from his classmates due to his sportsmanship and friendliness. His physical conditions, though, were slowly reaching a more severe state. Unable to practice able-bodied sports anymore, he worked to accept his new condition, it was time for a ‘rebirth’ as he calls it. Young dreams were fatally crashed in a matter of weeks, but the human spirit is an abstract thing with a mind that revolves conscious and unconscious spectrums.
Billy was coping with his disability, surviving everyday, but he wasn’t living his life to its fullest. The only way he could grapple with his new condition was through something he was very accustomed to – sports-. No abnormality was going to thwart Billy’s aspirations. Yet, the unforgivable factor of time took an almost 12 year pause after the stroke as Billy worked to re-discover himself. Nothing happens in life by mistake, and when those supposed mistakes turn out to be strengths one’s inner strength can be peacefully realized. These hurdles make a person who they shaping their live. Billy said to life and to himself “bring on the mistakes, because I’m more than ready.”
Billy has always been the athletic type, playing soccer in high school and experimenting with different recreational ones, whether the basketball team, baseball or track and field. Growing up, he knew sports were ingrained deeply inside him.
“Sports is what I love to do, it’s what I enjoy the most, and being active and athletic. It’s part of my personality, of my physical nature.”
Sometimes what is needed to prepare oneself for life’s next life stages is time, and in 2009 Billy audaciously re-ignited his true-self and found adapted sports. Through acquaintances and the Wheelchair Sports Federation, he did not hesitate to begin practicing sled hockey. Then in 2011 he attended a Paratriathlon camp through the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He continued with triathlon for almost two years until he couldn’t run anymore and needed to switch to a new sport.
“I realized that it was challenging for me, and of course in Triathlon running is an important aspect.”
In 2013 Billy rediscovered cycling after friends introduced him to a high performance cyclist coach working with the US Paralympics. Billy went to San Diego in March 2013 for a selection process, where he excelled more than had been anticipated.
“I had a disposition and a proclivity to it. I realized that I was pretty good at it, and then it hit me I could become a professional athlete.”
Something in him clicked. He inherently knew that no matter the strenuous up-and-downs he would become a pro athlete and decided to give it his all, to strengthen this talent coming organically out of him. The national championships came, then the world cups, and he was getting ahead, so he gave his dedication to the Paralympic trials. In November 2013 he competed at the US Indoor Track Para Cycling National Championships and, having only ridden a track bike twice in his life, became a National Champion in the Men’s C2 Division, the three kilometer Individual Pursuit and the one kilometer Time Trial. He was leaving other incredulous athletes and the public – most of them unaware of his existence -aghast with surprise and filled with amazement. In January 2015 he started exclusively training in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center. He was ready for the Paralympics.
Billy was scheduled to compete in four events in Rio de Janeiro: the Men’s C1 3000m Individual Pursuit Qual on Sept 9th, the men’s C1-2-3 1000m Time Trial on Sept. 10th, the men’s Time Trial C1 on Sept. 14th all of them in the Rio Olympic Velodrome and the men´s road race on Sept. 16th outside the Olympic park in the Cycling road in Pontal. He trained hard for this moment and attended with discipline every training session at the Velodrome, in the heart of the Olympic Park located in Barra de Tijuca at the shores of Rio de Janeiro. He was set to face difficult competitors from around the world, all of them after that desired prize, a Paralympic medal and recognition for their efforts determination. Billy came with a goal in mind, to taste the playfield and experience the Paralympics. But competition was fierce and Billy was unable to claim a medal. At his last race Billy had to be pulled out due to an injury on his left elbow sustained by a crash he suffered the previous day, right before his time trial where he came in 5th.
“I had a bike crash on my way to the start line on Wednesday morning and fractured my left elbow, fully displaced at the radial head with a splinter through the joint. I still went and raced, and finished 5th overall which is a reasonable result given I was riding on a broken arm”
Unconcerned, he knows Rio wasn’t his only opportunity at the Paralympics, and that his driving force and undeniable dogged determination will continue to rise in future competitions.
“I have high aspirations for Tokyo in 2020—Rio 2016 is not my only shot. I’ve got a long future in Paralympic cycling.”
Whether it’s in Rio de Janeiro, at high-top championships, or the Olympic Training Center in the Colorado Springs, Billy is determined to go where triumph is guaranteed and undaunted from the intense-hardcore training sessions. He’s not afraid of defeat and will outwit his own body to the last drop.
Billy is spurred on to greater efforts; it’s a quintessential element of sports and a growth feature not to be ignored or underestimated. He knows everything comes with a high level of discipline and hard work. Sports are an ingrained part of his life and this Paralympian will continue to best athletes in future international competition.