Shawn Morelli: From Army Major to Paralympic Gold Medalist

Shawn Morelli: From Army Major to Paralympic Gold Medalist

Shawn Morelli took time out to share with us her truly inspirational story. A major in the US Army, Shawn experienced an injury during service in Afghanistan that changed her life forever. Shawn turned to cycling to help her to heal physically and mentally, and now cycles competitively for her country.

If you ask my parents they will tell you that my desire to join the United States Army started when I was around ten. I felt that it would be a great way to follow in the footsteps of my great grandfather, grandfather and father, proudly carrying forward the legacy of service to my country. In 2007, I was deployed as an engineer officer on my third combat deployment to Afghanistan. I felt ready for it… but are you ever really ready for combat?  

On this deployment I was seriously injured and my life was forever changed. I was left with permanent injuries, blinding my left eye, damaging my neck and nerves, and brain trauma. I was struggling to heal, leaning on family and friends, when it was suggested I try cycling as a method of physical and mental therapy.

In 2010, I was exposed to competitive cycling at the 2010 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, and invited to my first para-cycling camp. My bike training was helping to strengthen my body, improving balance to counteract my visual limitations and physical imbalances.

I never thought I would have a career in sport, my life plan had me retiring from the US Army. Which I did – I was medically retired from the Army a couple of years later in 2012 due to the wounds I’d sustained in combat. When I look back on my life, obviously, the turning point is not something I was expecting. It took me a while to not only understand what happened to me and heal, but also to accept and even longer, to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

This was a very up and down time in my life, I struggled with alcohol which I used to deaden the pain, I was self-destructive and I attempted suicide. I wanted the mental and physical pain to end. It was not until I made a conscious decision while in the hospital recovering from that attempt that I was going to live, and live every day for all those who never came home. I made one simple goal ‘to be better today than I was yesterday’.

Cycling has become my path to healing both mentally and physically. I ride for those who can not ride. I was given a second chance at life. Cycling has taken me many places around the world, allowed me many opportunities to represent my country on the biggest of stages. I have earned many accolades; I am a two-time gold medalist in the Paralympic Games. I have competed in a number of World Championships over the last six years earning 16 medals, including 12 World Championship titles, 2 silver medals and 2 bronze medals.

I often get asked how my time in the Army has helped me in my cycling career. I typically respond with that it has helped me to keep things in perspective. It has taught me how to be full of adrenaline, keep my focus and do my job. When you have seen, done and been through some of the things I have, it is easy to just think to myself ‘I am just racing a bike’.

I feel pressure of competitions and the adrenaline that comes with that but I am able to put it into perspective. It is not nearly as much pressure as when you are working in a combat zone and are responsible for the 30 lives around – fathers, sons, moms, daughters, husbands, wives. That is pressure, that is stressful; this is just riding a bike.

Shawn Morelli 1 - Photo credit Casey Gibson
UCI Paracycling Road World Cup, Corridonia, Italy 
Day 4 road races, relay
UCI Paracycling Road World Cup, Corridonia, Italy 
Day 2 time trials

I am thankful to my community, my hometown and the many organizations that not only helped me to get started on this new path, but also the programs and sponsors that continue to aide me on this journey.

Project Hero helped me to find my soul in cycling – they bring wounded, sick and injured veterans together building camaraderie and fellowship – they promote healing through cycling. This was one of the first places I was not afraid to be me. I had a local bike shop in Santa Fe Trails in Leavenworth, KS that invited me to participate in group rides. They worked closely with me, teaching me how to ride with my injuries and introducing me into the world of racing.

Project Echelon is another organization I have come to know and rely on. They are not only a professional cycling team, but they work with veterans to educate, equip and empower them through physical activity and self-discovery. They support veterans that have already found success in sport to achieve their next step and goals. Then they go one step further to provide veteran mentorship by connecting veterans with their elite racing team and sponsors to assist in attaining their physical goals and help them discover healing along the way.

I have also discovered Team PossAbilites. PossAbilities is a free community outreach program developed by the Loma Linda University Health whose goal is to provide resources and support to veterans and anyone with a permanent physical or intellectual disability. Their mission is to provide new direction and hope through physical, social, and spiritual activities by connecting our members with their peers and community.

The final sponsor to fall into my lap that has provided great support but also much needed equipment is Verve Cycling. They have given me the power to train and compete. Very literally, they provide my cranks and power meters for all of my bikes. We’ve been working together for a couple years now – without Bryan and the InfoCrank, my training would not be as far along.

I experience nerve damage that causes the right side of my body to fire very differently from the left. The InfoCrank power meter measures each leg independently to help my coach gain an accurate understanding of what’s going on. The information my coach gets is exactly what we need to take me to the next level.  

All of these organizations have assisted in getting me where I am today and without any one of them I would not have achieved what I have.

As my sports career progresses and I start to think about retirement, I consider the idea of teaching and sharing what I’ve learned. I’ve started public speaking about resilience and overcoming adversity. I want to continue to mentor kids and speak at schools. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time at my High School in Seagertown, Pennsylvania, attending sporting events and giving back to the school. I really enjoy mentoring new riders too, this gives me a lot of joy.

I used to coach soccer, I have not coached in few years but after Tokyo, I plan on taking my advanced certification and start coaching again. I found that with my training schedule, especially leading into the Games, I could not devote the required time to the kids. I believe if you are going to do something, you do it 100 per cent, and right now I am not able to that.

For now, I plan on taking this year one day at a time and staying in the present. I would be joking myself if I said I was not thinking of everything I need to do to get to Tokyo and a little of the pressure. In this run up, I don’t think I feel more pressure than I did going into Rio but it is different. In Rio, I came in as reigning world champion in both my target events. So, the pressure to perform on that bigger stage was on me all through the final preparation. Of course, I feel the pressure and want to defend my Paralympic results; this is when I fall back on my family, coaching and support staff to help me keep focus on my preparation and not so much on the results in the Games. Of course, I have to make it to the team going to the Games first.

I get asked a lot if I would go back to the day of my accident and change it but my answer is always no. The people I have met, the experience and the opportunities are not what I planned but it has been a great journey. And I am honored to have been able to go from wearing my flag on my shoulder to wearing it on my back.

Photo Credit: Casey Gibson

Is a Power Meter worth the investment?

Is a Power Meter worth the investment?

To increase your speed and enjoyment on the bike, a power meter is probably the only thing you should be considering investing in.

At times it seems there is a never-ending stream of equipment being sold with the promise of helping you go further and faster.  In pursuit of this goal it can be tempting to invest money in new lightweight wheels, a lightweight carbon frame, or a lighter and more efficient drivetrain.

Given the variety of kit available, is a power meter worth the investment?  Maybe you compare costs and believe some lighter componentry will serve you better.  Maybe you see the pros using them and rule yourself out. As we’ll see below, the truth is that for increasing your speed and enjoyment on the bike, a power meter is probably the only thing you should be considering investing in.

IMG_6129To show why a power meter offers most bang for your buck, it’s worth briefly touching on what really makes a difference to a cyclist’s performance.  The key metric used by professional cyclists to measure performance is called the power to weight ratio.  This metric is also commonly used in motorsport and in the case of cycling is denoted by the amount of power (measured in Watts) a cyclist can generate for a given bodyweight (measured in Kilograms).  The unit for this measurement is Watts/Kg where either an increase in power or a reduction in bodyweight will typically show an improvement in performance.

Is a Power Meter worth the investment? 1

Most endurance based professional cyclists tend to be operating toward the upper end of their power to weight ratio, where they have found their particular physiological sweet-spot between their ability to produce power consistently with the lowest associated bodyweight.  This is somewhat of a balancing act and is what really gets Froome over the Col du Tourmalet first.  The lightweight deep-section wheels and lightweight carbon frame may give him a small edge over anyone who happens to be able to stay with him, but all things being equal the rider with the highest power to weight ratio will summit the quickest.

Is a Power Meter worth the investment? 2

So if what matters most for going faster and further is maximising your own personal power to weight ratio then what is the most effective way of doing this?  Well, clearly you must either become lighter, or stronger, or both.  Becoming lighter is possible one of three ways – either your bike loses weight, you lose weight, or you both lose weight.  Buying lighter wheels will make your bike lighter, it will make the union of you and your bike lighter, but it won’t make you lighter. This isn’t a consideration if you are already your optimum weight, but if not then simply adjusting your diet may be a more cost effective way of improving your power to weight ratio.

The alternative to becoming lighter is of course increasing your power.  Power is essentially the amount of work you do in a given time and is something that can be trained for and improved significantly in all but the most highly trained cyclists. As already noted, there is an interplay between bodyweight and power, with those cyclists being the most powerful also typically being the heaviest, as in the case of track-cycling sprinters for instance.  But for non-elite riders even modest increases in power accompanied with modest reductions in bodyweight will manifest as potentially more than modest increases in performance.

If you are looking to increase your power, then by far the quickest and most effective way of doing this is with a power meter.  We have other articles on exactly how this can be achieved but suffice to say that with considered application and focus, power can be steadily and surely increased, but more importantly such gains can be built upon over the long term.  You can purchase a power meter for roughly the same as a pair of mid-range deep section road wheels or maybe good value carbon frameset.  And whilst the latter the purchases might give you an immediate gain, the gain is in a sense a one-off, because becoming a better cyclist isn’t just about going further and faster now, it’s about going further and faster now and also maximising the chances of going even further and faster in the future.

So in summary, the answer to the question is a power meter worth the investment has to be a resounding yes! The outlay probably isn’t as much as you think it is and unlike any improvement with lighter kit being fixed (you get it once and never again), with a power meter you enable yourself to improve your performance in compound fashion over the long term.  These gains can take longer than ordering some kit online, but when they come they are all real and all yours.

For any cyclist looking to go further and faster a power meter is indispensable.  The Verve InfoCrank is the most accurate and repeatable power meter available on the market today and is used by numerous top athletes and teams, including the UCI, British Cycling, and Hawaii Ironman winner Anne Haug.

The Advantages of Indoor Training

The Advantages of Indoor Training

There was once a time when cyclists had one choice when it came to training sessions, put some air in their tyres, lubricate their chains, check their brakes and head out onto the road.  Come rain or shine, wind or hail, light or dark, hot or cold, it was miles on the road that mattered and there was no alternative.

Nowadays cyclists are spoilt for choice when it comes to the variety of training options available.  There are indoor spin sessions, community cycling apps and online stationary bike sessions to name a few. 

Whilst staying indoors might mean you don’t get the satisfaction and contentment experienced after completing a long ride outdoors in the fresh air, there are a lot of benefits to indoor training.

One great aspect of indoor training is that you are not subject to the forces of the outdoors over which you have little or no control.  Such forces can range from the unpredictability of motorists, the pollution, the weather, or even the vicissitudes of the seasons.  Depending on where you live none or only some of these factors may be an issue, but the reality for most cyclists is that at one point all of the aforementioned will determine how enjoyable and effective your training and riding actually is.

Another fantastic aspect of training indoors is convenience.  No matter the time of day if your indoor set-up is ready to go you can throw on your jersey and bib-shorts and put in a 30-minute hard session.  You can squeeze this in in the morning before your shower, midway through the day if you are working from home or straight after you’ve put your little, or not so little ones down for sleep.  There really are no limitations and with indoor cycling Apps such as Zwift you have no reason to sacrifice that buzz you get from riding with your group. 

 

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Training indoors also means that any training efforts can be way more consistent and measured as there are no traffic lights, roundabouts (for you UK cyclists), bends, road junctions or other obstacles to working through a specific session.  You also never need to worry about getting the ‘knock’ due to inadequate or poor nutrition.  Being with no food and 40 miles from the end of your ride when you have hit the wall can be quite a gruelling experience, and as any cyclist who has experienced this will tell you, having a fully stocked larder only 6-feet away can certainly lessen the blow.

All in all, indoor training sessions offer high levels of consistency, convenience and safety, and can also go a long way to ensuring specificity in your efforts. On balance then training indoors has a great deal going for it.  Assuming you have the space to hand and have invested in a good set-up then it can be of real utility.

When indoor sessions are couple with an InfoCrank there is no reason at all why you cannot see significant progress in your fitness.  This of course will require commitment and a structured training programme, but more and more cyclists are turning to indoor training to develop their fitness over the winter months or focus their training in ways that riding outdoors doesn’t always easily allow.

Is a Power Meter worth the investment?

A Simple Guide to Power Meters

If you want to improve your performance on the bike, measuring power is one of the most accurate ways to monitor your riding and make gains. Here’s some simple guidance to help you get started with power measurement. 

What is a power meter?

A power meter is a device fitted to a bike that measures the power output of a rider.  Depending on the device, a range of information can be measured, including left and right power balance, power delivery through the pedal stroke, torque and cadence. Power meters record data in real time and transfer it to a head unit to give the cyclist an immediate view of power output. This data can also be transferred to and then analysed within one of the many software platforms developed for this purpose.

How exactly will it help to make a rider faster?

Power meters are used by professional riders around the world, however amateurs have a lot to gain from using a power meter. Amateurs tend to have less hours per week to dedicate to training, so maximising the efficiency of that precious time on the bike is essential. If you have accurate power training zones, even a 20 to 30 minute workout can be effective and beneficial.

For example, if you are tackling a mountainous sportive in the Alps, a power meter will allow you to train for and also accurately pace those long climbs.  This can be especially useful for the newcomer where it’s not possible to accurately ride on feel alone, which can lead to overdoing it on the early climbs due to excitement and event day atmosphere. By being able to ration your energy in this way, your overall ride performance and enjoyment of the day will improve.

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What do I need to consider when choosing the right power meter for me?

When it comes to power measurement, repeatability and accuracy are key and unless you’re certain that you can compare your data from one ride to next, a power meter offers little guidance. The repeatability and accuracy offered is not the same across the market. If you bought a cheap set of bathroom scales, with time they would become less reliable as the working parts were stressed and deformed every time you stepped on them. With a power meter, there are similar concerns, so be careful when making your choice.

Power meters are available as single or double sided. Single sided power meters record one side and simply double the measurement, which means it is always an approximation. A dual sided power meter allows you to accurately isolate those pedalling imbalances and address related issues in your bike set-up, technique or physiology.

Other elements to consider include battery life, frame compatibility and ease of maintenance.

How do I get started?

Once you’ve made sure that the power meter is fitted correctly, then the first thing to do is to establish your training zones. Perform a fitness test to give you a baseline figure to work from. One of the most widely used tests for this purpose is the Functional Threshold Power (FTP). This test will provide the required data to demonstrably increase your performance over time. Once you’ve established your baseline, the next step is to set your objectives – what do you want to achieve? You can then breakdown your overall goal into weekly or monthly targets to help keep you motivated.

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