Where are they now? Chasing down... Connie Paraskevin

  
  


By Aaron Torres

Photo by Ross Kinaird/Getty Images
Photo by Ross Kinaird/Getty Images
Since she was a young child, 1988 Olympic bronze medal winning track cyclist Connie Paraskevin has only taken one approach to life: If she’s going to commit to something, she’s going to do it to the 100 percent best of her ability.

“From a personality standpoint,” Paraskevin said in a recent interview with USA Cycling. “I’m going to jump in 100 percent. That’s how I was as a kid, and it’s how I am now as an adult.”

It’s an approach which has worked well for Paraskevin throughout her 51 years; first as a world-class athlete, but also as an advocate, and more recently as a spokesperson for cycling.

And incredibly, after a decorated career in which she participated in five separate Olympic Games in two different sports and won five world titles in track cycling alone, Paraskevin is just now, in 2013, starting to do her best work.

It’s also her most important work to date.

The Olympic Dream:

Unlike so many children who eventually become world-class athletes, Paraskevin wasn’t born and bred to play sports, but almost stumbled into them (including cycling specifically), by accident. Her parents had no visions of Olympic grandeur when they dropped off their nine-year-old daughter at the Wolverine Sports Club in the winter of 1970, but instead, they simply wanted their child to stay active and healthy.

At the time, Paraskevin’s parents would’ve been fine with whatever sport their daughter chose. Little did they know she’d choose just about all of them.

“At the time I started, I was doing a lot of things in terms of sport,” Paraskevin said. “I was in a tennis league; I was in a golf league. I skied. And I skated and rode a bike. If I’m being honest, my favorite was probably tennis.”

But through the friends she made and the fun she had, Paraskevin eventually veered away from tennis, and by her teenage years began to focus on two sports specifically: Speed skating during the winter, and cycling in the summer.

Now, had Paraskevin been raised in 2013, she probably would’ve been forced to choose one of the two, but in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s she was free to pursue both vigorously. She did just that, winning her first intermediate track cycling national championship at age 14, and first adult national championship in 1981. But Paraskevin never stopped speed skating either, and earned her first Olympic berth in that sport in 1980.

Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images
Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images
Reflecting back on her hectic adolescence now, Paraskevin believes that by sticking with both, it actually helped her in the long run.   
“I knew at the time it was very much an advantage to be doing that,” Paraskevin said. “I was in ‘competitive’ mode and had to be in competitive shape, year round more or less. There was less room for error. But done right, it could be very advantageous.”

Still, while the cross-training was beneficial, it couldn’t last forever, and following the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Paraskevin decided to give up speed skating for good. A combination of a shin injury which she just couldn’t seem to shake, as well as her body’s physical need for an off-season pushed her out of speed skating and into cycling full-time.

Like everything else, Paraskevin was ready to jump into the next chapter of her life, full speed ahead.

Earning A Spot in the History Books:

Unfortunately though, while Paraskevin may have been ready to ride her bike full-time, cycling itself- and specifically for women- was going through somewhat uncertain times. After back-and-forth political debate, women’s cycling was added to the summer Olympic program for the first time in 1984, but only on the road, and not the track. Because of it, Paraskevin- who at that point was already a three-time world champion in the sport- had no choice but to watch the Games from the stands, rather than compete herself. And it was right then and there she made a vow that things would change by the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around.

That change started in Paraskevin’s adopted hometown of Indianapolis, where the 1987 Pan-Am Games were being contested. Paraskevin knew a handful of members on the Pan-Am Games committee and also knew how the politics of the sporting world worked at the time. That knowledge essentially boiled down to this: If a sport was approved for the Pan-Am Games, it would almost certainly be approved for the following Olympics as well.

From there Paraskevin and a number of the other top women’s riders of the time went to work on the Pan-Am Games committee, and through hard work and diligence the sport was approved in time for the event in 1987. Like clockwork, once women’s track cycling got the green light from the Pan-Am Games, it got it from the 1988 Seoul Olympics also.

“It’s one of those things that I don’t know how much it helped or not, but I feel as though I at least did everything I could,” Paraskevin said. “Throughout my career I experienced a lot of firsts for women, and specifically in my sport of cycling. I’d like to believe it was because of people like myself, but also Sheila Young, Sue Novara, Connie Carpenter.”

But make no mistake, once the 1988 Olympics did roll around, it was time to stop celebrating and start competing. A veteran of two previous winter Olympic Games, Paraskevin showed up in Seoul without any doubt as to why she was there. She was trying to win an Olympic medal.

“There are some athletes who have a difficult time of pushing through the hoopla and the distractions,” said Paraskevin. “(For me) it’s all about going there to compete.”

Paraskevin did more than that, taking home a bronze medal in the women’s individual sprint. To date, she’s the only American woman to ever medal in the event.

Fast Forward to 2013:

Following her success in success in Seoul, Paraskevin entered a brief period of soul-searching in her career.

An injury in 1989 pushed her to try and regain her status of world champion (a title she had last held in 1984) and when she did take home a world championship in 1990, it inspired her to try and make an Olympic push in 1992 as well. Once there, a controversial judge’s decision eliminated Paraskevin from competition, giving her added motivation to come back one final time for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.
But beyond just the opportunity to compete for one last shot at gold, there was one reason outside of cycling why Paraskevin wanted to stick around for 1996.  

“It’s pretty darn hard to pass up an Olympic Games in your own home country,” she said. “I had been to enough Olympic Games’ to know, ‘Man, having the Olympics in your country is a whole different ball-game.”

But when the Atlanta Games were done, so too was Paraskevin’s track cycling career. As she’d done so many times throughout her entire life, Paraskevin didn’t hesitate to move- and move aggressively- into the next phase of her life.

Paraskevin immediately went into a role as an ambassador for cycling, with the specific purpose of getting more people involved with the sport on all levels. In 2005 she began in her current role, a joint partnership between her foundation (the Connie Cycling Foundation), the LA84 Foundation and the Home Depot Center (which after June 1, 2013 will be called the Stub Hub Center) with the intent to get more kids involved in the sport. After a long period of careful consideration, Paraskevin jumped into the project head-on.

Like she’s always done.

“I kind of took a step back and evaluated,” Paraskevin said. “(I looked around and said) ‘Alright, can things work here.’ If I do this, it’s not something I’m going to do one, two, three or even five years. If I jump in, we’re really digging in here.”

Paraskevin and her team did exactly that, with an emphasis on the next generation of cyclists. She wanted to create a pathway for young cyclists, and not only get kids on their bikes but also build the foundation for a lifetime in cycling.  

“At one point it was getting the kids,” Paraskevin said. “Then it was getting the kids to stay and then it was getting the kids, not only at ‘this’ level, but this (next) level. Then it was about having multiple at various levels, because nobody wants to be alone, right? Then we’ve got all these kids, now we need events for them to do.”

“It’s about consistency and dependability,” Paraskevin added.

Well, after seven long years of raising awareness around the Los Angeles area and beyond, Paraskevin’s programs have undoubtedly proven to be successful. The number of youth riders is up across the board, and as we enter the middle of 2013, Paraskevin’s program is set to enter Stage II of its current form. The group recently became a 501C3 non-profit, and is now looking to expand with the help of additional support from the cycling community in a program called “Gear Up.”

“We will and I will need that support going into Phase II,” Paraskevin said, making sure to emphasize how much the LA84 Foundation and the Home Depot Center have done to get her program to this point. “We are getting kids on bikes. We are growing the sport. We have the ability to do much greater things, larger numbers, with additional monetary support.”

And it’s through that support that Paraskevin is hoping to see her sport continue to grow. Despite being one of the great cyclists of her generation, for Paraskevin it isn’t about finding the next Olympic champion in her program. Instead, it’s about finding the next nine-year-old Connie Paraskevin, a young child who might fall into cycling by accident, but might also find a life-long passion because of it.

“It’s all about getting people on bikes,” Paraskevin said. “Cycling is a great sport.”

And if the past is any indication of the future, it’s a sport Paraskevin plans to give 100 percent to for a very long time.


This Article Published April 10, 2013 For more information contact:
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