Putney Handcyclist In Paralympics

08/31/12 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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VPR/Susan Keese
Alicia Brelsford Dana and her daughter, Willa

A Putney woman is in London to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games, which began earlier this week. Forty-two year old Alicia Brelsford Dana hopes to win medal as a handcyclist.

Brelsford Dana was seventeen, and a senior at the Putney School, when she fell out of a tree and became paralyzed from the waist down.

 "This September sixth it will be twenty-six years," she recalls.

But being in a wheelchair hasn't kept her from living an interesting life. She's managed to travel to Africa, Guatemala, Havana and more.

Brelsford Dana got into handcycling not long after the bikes for leg-disabled athletes were invented, in the late 1990s.

Her original bike was a Freedom Ryder. The name fit.

She remembers getting her first handcycle:  "I just had a big grin from ear to ear every time I went out on it, because it's a way to be free and get places, and it sort of defies the limits that being in a wheelchair all the time can otherwise make you start to feel."

In 2000, Brelsford Dana powered her handcycle from Washington state to Vermont, to raise money and awareness for disability-related causes.

The trip left her in such good shape that a fellow cyclist urged her to get involved in handcycle racing. The sport was relatively new at the time.

"She said, ‘Alicia there's like one woman doing this on the racing circuit," Dana Brelsford says. "'They could really use more women. You oughta do it.'"

Brelsford Dana had been a bike racer before her accident. She says it was wonderful to rekindle that love in a new way. In 2001 she made the U.S. Team and competed in the world championships in Germany.

Then, after her first successes, she got married, and gave birth to her daughter Willa, who is now eight-and-a-half.

After she and her husband separated, racing was the last thing on her agenda.

"Raising my daughter on my own has kept me away from going to races," she says. "I just needed to be here at home with her."

But a year ago last spring, a friend persuaded her to enter the Burlington City Marathon. She won first place in her division and came back exhilarated and ready to race again.

Brelsford Dana's first national competition was a disaster. In her decade away, the sport had become more competitive. And her old bike was obviously obsolete.

Dana laughs, "I got really, really creamed. And it was like, ‘OK, I know where I'm at and I know where the bar is set. And it's time to get to work.'"

Shortly after she started training, her bike was stolen. It was later returned, but when word got out, people in her native Windham County raised $10,000 -- more than enough to buy a new bike-- a super-aerodynamic, carbon fiber model.

In June she became one of seven women on the U.S. Paralympic Team.

Brelsford Dana says she doesn't expect to win the gold. But she says she's almost as fast as the gold-medal favorite.

 "I definitely think there's a shot at a medal," she says. "We'll just have to see who else is there."

She says she's fueled in part by support from her community and her family. And she says she couldn't be more grateful.

Brelsford Dana's first competition in London is next Wednesday, September 5th.

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