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For 20 years, Meg Fisher has been showing up where people least expect her.
As a new below-the-knee amputee at a triathlon (when she had never swam more than 1,000 yards).
As a cyclist, on the national team and at the Paralympic Games (when she had never really biked, until she’d tried a tri).
In marriage (in 2012, as soon as the state of Washington legalized same-sex unions).
In academics, where she became a Doctor of Physical Therapy (even though she didn’t think she was smart enough).
And now in gravel, where she is paving the way for other paracyclists (who, as yet, don’t have their own category at most events).
What makes her continued perseverance in showing up so striking is that on June 30th, 20 years ago, Fisher was in a car accident that robbed her of some of the very things we require to trudge through life every day: her brain was severely injured, her mobility was compromised, and love became loss — Fisher’s girlfriend Sara was killed in the crash that day.
Then, for years after the accident, various people told Fisher various things: that she wouldn’t walk, that she wouldn’t be the same, that she should temper her expectations of what life would look like.
They weren’t even taking into account grief, the invisible injury, that she would shoulder for the rest of her life.
In other words, some people told Fisher that her world was going to shrink. But, at 19, 20, 21 years old, Fisher didn’t want to live in a small world. In some way, without Sara, now she had to occupy two people’s space in it.
“If someone tells you your world is gonna be small, question it,” she says.
Small world v big world
On a recent trip to Aspen for a Cannondale bike launch, I realize that Fisher makes living with one complete limb look easy.
After a ride, we ditch our bikes on the banks of the Rio Grande River to dip in the glacial waters. Fisher has her riding leg on, which unlike her walking leg, is designed not to move at all. It is basically a carbon fiber shaft with a small ‘foot,’ and on the bottom of the foot is an SPD cleat. Not ideal for wading into a swiftly-moving river carpeted with slick baseball-sized rocks.
Small world v big world: Of course she’s getting in.
Later that day, Fisher tells me that her leg was about to fall off the entire ride. A silicone-lined sleeve suctions the prosthesis to her thigh, and there’s a tear in it.
Also, “gravity is always trying to pull my leg off,” she says. “And sweat. Sweat is a prosthetic user’s nemesis.”
A few weeks earlier, Fisher had completed her third Unbound Gravel, the 200-mile gravel race that is infamously difficult, for everyone. The bottom of her riding foot is completely wrecked from the atrocious peanut butter mud section of the race; the mud and grit literally ate away at the layers of carbon, leaving it a chewed-up nub.
It doesn’t even compute how she made it through that section at all. I fell over and dropped my bike multiple times.
But Fisher doesn’t really complain, or in the same vein, expect any special kudos for making it through a section of the race that took some able-bodied people an hour to get through.
Although she is leaning into her newfound role as a consultant to the industry about paracycling categories and inclusivity in off-road racing, Fisher didn’t start racing gravel or XC to become an advocate. She just wanted to experience the events for herself.
Team Scratch and Dent
Fisher’s first gravel race was the 2018 edition of Rebecca’s Private Idaho. She was invited to join a team of former combat veterans “because I was only girl they knew who would do it. And then I did the whole queen’s stage race.”
They called themselves Team Scratch and Dent.
Fisher had long been a fan of Rebecca Rusch, the event’s organizer and a former competitive off-road adventure racer herself. In fact, Fisher tells me she signed up for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race because she was inspired by Rusch’s performances there over the years.
“It was like, ‘I want to do what she’s doing, but couldn’t because I was on the national team,” Fisher says. “As soon as I got off the national team, I applied to Leadville, and I got in.”
A brief pause for background: Before she started dabbling in the gravel and off-road endurance space, Fisher spent much of mid 20s until her mid 30s occupied with training and competing as a cyclist on the U.S.’ national paracycling team.
While the immediate year following the accident was rife with pain and procedures (Fisher opted for a below-the-knee amputation 11 months after the accident due to unmanageable pain in her partially-repaired foot and ankle), Fisher wanted to return to sport as soon as she could.
“I didn’t want to be disabled,” she says.
Fisher was a lifelong athlete and had played Division 1 tennis at the University of Montana her freshman year. Soon after the accident, it became apparent that tennis, and collegiate athletics in general, were not going to be a possibility anymore. She credits her service dog Betsy with leading her to triathlon, which then led to cycling.
“I was using crutches and a wheelchair, and I couldn’t walk her enough,” Fisher says. “I couldn’t run her enough. I saw people riding bikes around Missoula. I just wanted to have fun with my dog and meet people.”
In 2010, Fisher won the USA Paratriathlon National Championship in the TRI-5 division and competed at paratriathlon worlds. She also became the first female lower-limb amputee to complete an XTERRA off-road triathlon.
Then, Fisher secured a spot on the US National paracycling team and went on to compete at both the London and Rio Paralympic games, netting two medals on the road and two on the track along the way.
After the Rio games, Fisher decided to step away from the national team. She was reeling from divorce, and, she wanted to give her body a break.
Yet, she didn’t want to move away from competitive sport altogether. She just wanted more balance.
“To be that fast takes so much time,” she says. “It’s so hard. Training a diesel engine, on the other hand, is almost fun. Training that high octane engine is really hard. That’s what’s so great about gravel, people can have a fulltime job and a family and build endurance over time.”
So, while running her physical therapy practice in Missoula, Fisher shifted her focus away from the top-end and toward endurance events like RPI and Leadville and Unbound. She left the comfort of the national team where her physical impairment was not the exception but the rule — “talk about seeing yourself reflected” — to show up in more places where she was least expected.
“Like group rides,” she says. “I’m sometimes one of the only women there, and I’m definitely the only person who looks like me who shows up. And that’s challenging for me. But I have to do it. If I get popped off, I get popped off and that’s fine.”
“Not ‘because of’ or ‘in spite of'”
Fisher has so many stories, so much life experience packed into the last 20 years, that I wonder how she decides which ones to tell when she’s asked to speak at an event. She’s fond of universal themes — “there is no change without challenge,” for example — and at a recent women’s clinic in Vermont, hosted by Rooted co-founder Laura King, she spoke about the power of visualization to re-wire the brain.
In other words, she has a way of not throwing her injury, and her profound life experiences, in your face.
But, Fisher is also learning to harness the influence that those experiences give her. She knows that she is becoming more visible, and that by being seen, she creates a pathway for other cyclists with physical impairments to enter the sport.
“I’m not saying it’s gonna be a drug everyone likes and gets addicted to, but I want everyone to feel like they can try it,” she says. “I want people to know they have the ability to try it out.”
And while Fisher doesn’t mind having tried things out as some would say, ‘the hard way,’ she thinks that there is a huge disadvantage to lumping people with physical impairments together with able-bodied people in race categories. Her experience racing at the most elite level in the para world backs up her thesis.
“I think it’s narrow to expect a para athlete to compete at the same level as an able-bodied athlete,” she says. “We make age group categories, right? We don’t expect people in their 70s to race against people in their 40s or the 40s with the 20s. That’s why we have age groups.
“Similarly somebody with two legs — I might be able to beat them, and in some distances I very much can. But over 200 miles, if someone has one arm or is using a handcycle or on a tandem with a visual impairment, I think they need to be recognized. Not ‘because of’ or ‘in spite of,’ but because they’re not the same person. They’re not an age grouper. A 30-year-old hand cyclist is not the same as a 30-year-old cyclist.”
In gravel, the cycling discipline most likely to make quick changes in order to preserve — or promote — a culture of inclusivity, Fisher has begun to find an audience willing to test her theory.
In 2021, Rebecca’s Private Idaho added a para category. In California, Pete Stetina’s Paydirt event debuted this year with a full para podium, and Grinduro also added a para-cyclist category. SBT GRVL has 37 para cyclists registered across its four race distances for the race in August.
Over the past year, Fisher has been consulting with Life Time, promoter of events like the Leadville Trail 100 and Unbound, to help the organization craft a para policy. Both of those events have added para categories, and the organization — with Fisher’s guidance — is working with individual race directors to asess whether para categories are possible at all events.
“I gave them guidelines based off of international governing body guidelines to make this a more uniform application of paracycling,” Fisher says. “At some point, the UCI or USA Cycling will try and get involved in gravel. When that happens, I want to insure that there’s language in place so when it happens, para cyclists already have a seat at the table.”
In addition to making para an official category at events, however, Fisher wants her involvement in the sport to serve as a message to other physically impaired cyclists: you belong here, too.
“When people don’t see themselves reflected even a little, do they know that space is open to them? Para athletes exist, and we’re the one category you can join when you least expect it.”
Fisher certainly wasn’t expecting it, on that sunny summer day 20 years ago, driving cross-country back to college with her girlfriend Sara. She also wasn’t expecting people to tell her that she wouldn’t be capable anymore, that her prosthesis wouldn’t be as good as an actual leg.
But, she kept showing up. And in her wake, she’s creating space.