Tokyo Paralympic medallist Chernove: 'It's about finding ways to live the best life"

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Tristen Chernove's road to happiness was a partially paved highway in Mexico.

The 46-year-old from Cranbrook, B.C., was driving a converted school bus in 2001 when he hit an uneven patch of pavement and careened off the road and down a river bank. He sailed through the windshield and broke his back in a split second that forever changed his life — but in a good way.

Two decades later, Chernove raced to a silver medal in track cycling's C1 3,000 metres at the Tokyo Paralympics on Thursday, for his fourth career Games medal.

It wasn't the broken back that led him to Paralympic racing, but Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, a debilitating condition that affects the peripheral nerves that control muscles.

But his broken back had peeled away the less important parts of life years earlier, and prepared him for what was to come.

"One, it was a little mini-training camp that I think helped prepare me for what I didn't know was going to come in my future. I didn't know yet what the impacts of CMT would be on me," Chernove said. "I lost my mobility. I was in a chair. But I had never been as happy.

"I was full of nothing but joy in the purest sense when I wheeled out of that hospital. I had lost every physical possession I owned because I was moving at the time (of the accident). I'd lost the use of my body. And yet, I just was so happy to be alive. It was quite eye-opening to realize that all of the things that I attached myself to didn't matter."

As CMT — the same degenerative disease that forced Canadian Todd MacCulloch to prematurely retire from the NBA — has increasingly affected his mobility, Chernove said he's revisited that same realization.

When he retires from Paralympic cycling after Tokyo, he hopes that others will have gained strength from that message.

"The greatest gift humans have is that we are the most adaptable creatures," Chernove said. "It's about adapting to whatever our circumstances are and extracting the most out of every day. That's really what I would hope to pass on to others. The more examples there are in the world of looking at the bright side (the better), there's always many angles, and it's just finding ways to live the best life."

Chernove was overtaken Russian Paralympic Committee cyclist Mikhail Astashov, who recently switched from triathlon to cycling, in the gold-medal final at the Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka.

Canadian Nicolas-Guy Turbide swam to silver in the S13 100-metre backstroke later Thursday, upgrading from the bronze he captured five years ago at the Rio Paralympics.

With the pair of silvers on Day 2, Canada has four medals at the Paralympics.

Chernove's medal was the fourth of his career. He won silver in the same event at the 2016 Rio Games, and also won gold in the road cycling C2 time trial and bronze in the C1-3 1,000-metre time trial on the track.

He took up Paralympic sport after his diagnosis of CMT in 2009, hoping it would slow the degeneration. The Rio Olympics marked his big breakthrough in the sport, and since then he's raced to numerous world track and road race medals.

While the COVID-19 pandemic kept Chernove off the competitive track since the 2020 world championships, where he raced to three silver medals, training at home was affirmation that it was time to retire.

"The big story for me is it became very clear that it's beyond time for me to focus more of my attention on home and family," he said. "I will always be fit and trained. But I've got one Para race left of my career, that'll be the road race (on Sunday). And then I’m going to be devoting my time to my kids."

Chernove said another blessing of his bus crash was creating a tighter bond with his then-girlfriend Carrie, who suffered a severe concussion in the accident. The two are now married and have two daughters, Morgan, who is 11, and Bronwyn, 14.

Chernove plans to stay in the sport in a support role, something he's already well-versed in.

Last summer, he completed the BC Epic 1000, a 1,000-kilometre ride through south-central British Columbia, raising over $33,000 for the Paralympic Foundation of Canada. He became the first Para cyclist to complete the ride, and beat the previous course record of three days 15 hours and 33 minutes by about eight-and-a-half hours. Then in December, he and teammate Ross Wilson virtually ascended the height of Mount Everest on their stationary bikes, completing the "vEveresting" challenge in another fundraising effort.

Turbide, meanwhile, was thrilled with a silver medal after a back injury had him questioning whether he'd ever get to Tokyo.

"I had a really tough year of training, my body wasn't doing what I wanted for the past year-and-a-half, so to come back home with a silver medal, I cannot be happier with the results," he said.

The 24-year-old from Quebec City, who has a visual impairment, has had a bulging disc and muscle spasms since the 2019 world championship that made it too painful to push off the wall of the pool.

"Getting back to this level where I was in London in 2019 and finishing in the same position is just a full circle that closed itself," he said.

Also at the pool on Thursday, Canada's Katarina Roxon was fourth in the 100-metre breaststroke. The 28-year-old from Kippens, N.L., won gold in the event at the Rio Paralympics.

James Leroux of Repentigny, Que. was sixth in his men's 100 breaststroke final, while Matthew Cabraja of Brampton, Ont., was seventh in the men's 400 freestyle.

Elsewhere, Emma Reinke of St. Thomas, Ont., scored four goals to lead Canada's women's goalball team (1-1) to its first win in Tokyo, a 6-2 victory over Israel. "That felt amazing. It was a huge confidence boost, and I couldn't be happier. We showed we have all the tools to succeed," Reinke said.

Canada's men's wheelchair basketball team opened the Games with a 78-41 loss to Spain. Nik Goncin of Regina had 15 points to top the Canadians, who shot just 27 per cent from the field. Five-time Paralympian Patrick Anderson of Fergus, Ont., added eight points.

"I thought the last two years we made the best of it, but not being able to play together for two years against international competition (due to the pandemic) is tough," said Colin Higgins, who also had eight points. "Not making any excuses. It's a short and long tournament. . . The guys are chomping at the bit. They got a little taste. They’re looking forward to (Friday), for sure."

Canada's wheelchair rugby team dropped to 0-2 with a 58-54 loss to the U.S. Zak Madell of Okotoks, Alta., had a game-leading 31 tries for the Canadians, who led 28-27 at halftime against their familiar rival. The Americans grabbed the lead for good in the third quarter.

"They are a big, strong team," assistant coach Dave Willsie said of the Americans. "You know they are always going to compete hard; they are one of the favourites going in, you know you're in for a battle every time you play against them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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