Tristen Chernove was at a crossroads.
After he received the diagnosis in 2009 that he has Charcot Marie Tooth Disease, he was advised his doctor to slow down his active lifestyle. Light exercise was fine, but the high intensity training that he had become accustomed to as a competitive kayaker and dragon boat racer was off the table.
His doctor made the recommendation in the hopes that less strenous activity would combat the swift deteriorating effects the neurological disorder was having on his lower body
“For a long time when I was in a state of rapid degeneration, I had little control over my knees,” said Chernove. “There was very little nerve conduction below the knees. The knees felt like they were very frozen from the cold, but at the same time very hypersensitive to pressure. It made me very clumsy. I still have to wear ankle braces.”
Chernove decided to defy his doctor’s recommendation. He was not going to let this disorder, which affects approximately one in 2,500 people, define the way he was going to live his life. He made a bold decision to do the exact opposite: He was going to find an athletic endeavour that would require heavy pressure on his legs in the hopes that it would slow down his weakening lower body.
Cycling was the sport he chose. While his medical situation has not been completely stabilized seven years later, the Cranbrook, B.C. native said he feels that his commitment has managed to slow down the depreciation of his body, and has helped him maintain a high quality of life.
He arrives in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 31 as a bona fide Paralympics medal contender in all four of his events: the one kilometre time trial, the individual pursuit (three to four minutes), time trial (30 minutes) and road race (two hours). He is viewed as a gold medal favourite because he is the top ranked track cyclist in the world amongst males in the C2 (C means standard bike) sports class, and he led the world road race rankings for the majority of the year. He is currently ranked fifth.
What makes these feats even more remarkable is that he did not have a real clue of what para-cycling was when he departed for a bike trip from Jasper to Canmore in May 2015.
One of his companions on his journey was Matt Stirling, a photographer for Tourism Alberta.
“When I talked with him, he told me I was really fast on the bike,” said Chernove. “He said he had worked with Ross Wilson, who is on the para-cycling team, and that Wilson had the same disease that I do. He educated me about what para-cycling is, and he encouraged me to give it a try.
“My wife Carrie was really excited. She said, ‘You should do it.’ I was really excited about it over dinner that night, but then I didn’t really think about it for the next few days.”
A couple weeks later, while shopping for food at the Save-On-Foods in Cranbrook, he became convinced to give this sport a try.
“I was looking at the magazine section and I saw a story about Ross Wilson,” said Chernove. “It talked about how he had overcome so much and that he was having a lot of success. I took it as a sign.”
Less than 24 hours later, Chernove placed a call to Arnauld Litou, the supervisor of the Canadian para-cycling program, and was soon after invited to travel out to Thetford Mines, Que. to participate in the national road and track cycling championships in July.
Just prior to the competition, during the training sessions for the races, Chernove met his coach Guillaume Plourde. The coach, who at 26 is 15 years his trainee’s junior, was immediately impressed with what Chernove brought to the table.
“When I first saw Tristen I noticed that he was a committed and hard-working man,” said Plourde. “He performed very well on the power meters.”
This positive impression was made despite some technical problems. Chernove bought a bicycle with tires too wide for the bike frame, which proved to be hindering to his performance in the time trial. This did not dim Cycling Canada’s desire to work with Chernove.
Plourde was assigned to work with Chernove. As he lives in Quebec, he would email his prescribed training plans to Chernove, and he would phone him every two or three days.
After eight months of hard training, Chernove made his international competition debut this past March at the 2016 Union Cycliste Internationale Para-cycling Track World
Championships in Montichiari, Italy. He won two gold medals in individual pursuit and kilo events.
While Plourde said it was a surprise that Chernove captured two gold medals during his debut, it should not be completely shocking that he went from not really know about para-cycling is to leading the world rankings in 10 months.
“The fact that he is a lifetime athlete made this possible,” said Plourde. “In cycling, athletes have development patterns of about 10-15 years, but with para-cycling you can have a highly motivated life-long athlete like Tristen accomplish what he has accomplished.”
No aspects of para-cycling have been particularly paramount in fuelling Chernove’s rise to the top.
“I have found that I am a classic all-rounder,” he said. “I have a strong fast-twitch and slow-twitch, which means I am good at endurance and speed. I am able to adapt to do anything.”
Bolstering this claim is the fact he earned national titles in July for the 30-minute time trial and two-hour road race to complement the top-of-the-podium finishes he attained in the one kilometre race and the four-minute individual pursuit.
Plourde and Chernove completed their first extended hands-on training block together earlier in August. When Chernove was not pushing himself hard in practice with his coach, he was taking care of tasks for his company, Elevate Airports. He said he scours for Wi-Fi signals immediately after every training session or competition so he can do his work.
For Plourde, it was impressive to watch Chernove balance his demanding training schedule with his job.
“I saw him in his working environment and I realize why he is so efficient on the bike,” said the coach. “He is a Type A person. He deals with every request or demand on the spot. It is amazing how he integrates his training schedule with his work commitments.”
While Chernove is pleased how he has been able to balance his career and training, he said he has sacrificed a lot of time away from his wife and daughters Bronwyn (nine-years-old) and Morgan (six-years-old). After Rio, he will be scaling his training back in order to allow for more time at home.
He is excited to bring his family down to Rio to experience the Games. While he is expecting to contend for the podium in each of his events, he will not allow medals to define his experience in Rio. It is being in an environment chock-full of other Paralympians that thrills him the most.
“We are so inundated with doom and gloom in the media,” remarked Chernove. “There is so much angst between different cultures, countries and religions. All those barriers wash away and we all unify for athletic excellence.”
Chernove is fully cognizant that this will not have to many more opportunities to soak up the Paralympic atmosphere because of his age and his medical condition. His desire to make this experience truly special will undoubtedly come through with every one of his pedal strokes.
Photo Credit: Cycling Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Committee