Doing the impossible: Naomi Clark makes hand cycling history

  • Naomi Clark crossing the finish line of the Kelly Brush Foundation Ride in Vermont. Clark became the first women to complete a 100-mile ride on a hand cycle. Contributed Image/Dan Budris

  • Naomi Clark at the finish line of the Kelly Brush Foundatoin Ride in Vermont with Michelle Yargeau and Juan DelPrado, who rode behind her during her 100-mile ride. Contributed Image/Colleen Clark

  • Naomi Clark with Greg Durso, program director of the Kelly Brush Foundation, after completing her 100-mile ride at the Kelly Brush Foundation Ride in Vermont.  Contributed Image/Bruce Downes

  • Naomi Clark with Kelly Brush, founder of the Kelly Brush Foundation, after completing the 100-mile ride in Vermont. Contributed Image/Dan Budris

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2021 6:49:37 PM

Feel free to tell Naomi Clark what she can’t do.

Seriously, go ahead. Like a lot of great competitors, Clark thrives off proving people wrong more than positive reinforcement. She makes a mental note every time someone told her she couldn’t do something, added it to the memory bank. That’s where she’d go in the toughest moments of physical competition.

Were it not for people telling her what she couldn’t do after an accident in 2005 left her paralyzed from the chest down, there’s no telling what she would have been able to accomplish.

Earlier this month, the Ashfield native set out to complete a 100-mile hand cycle bike ride at the Kelly Brush Fundraiser in Vermont. Seeing as no woman had ever done it — only one had tried before and failed — there were plenty of people telling her it was impossible.

Those who said it was impossible would’ve been right 99.9 percent of the time. But there’s always the 0.1 percent that find a way to do the impossible, and Clark is one of them. She became the first woman ever to finish the 100-mile hand cycle ride, completing the course in nine hours, 30 minutes.

“In the moments where I didn’t know if I could do this, afterwards you feel like you need to thank your trainer and all that for support but I need to thank all the people who told me I couldn’t do it,” Clark said. “I heard the voices that said ‘you can’t bike 100 miles with your arms’ and ‘you won’t be able to do it.’ I just said ‘screw you, watch me.’ It was the naysayers that motivated me. Tell me I can’t do something and it just motivates me even more to do it.”

Clark’s entire world changed in an instant in 2005. An ATV crash on her family farm — Clark Brothers Orchards in Ashfield — broke her back in three places, broke four of her ribs and gave her a contusion in her lungs. The wreck left her paralyzed from the chest down.

Just 20 years old at the time, she had to relearn life’s basics.

“Your life is literally ripped out from under you,” Clark said. “My life changed in the blink of an eye. I had to relearn everything, from how to sit up in bed to going to the bathroom to using a wheelchair. I used to joke in rehab that I was an infant and an old person at the same time. I needed help getting dressed and help to move my body. Being 20 and a young woman, at that age you care so much about your physical appearance and physical ability. It really messed up my whole world. For a lot of people, it takes a really long time just to tread water again.”

The 37-year-old Clark feels if you’re an active person before an accident like that, you can be active after it as well. Everyone is unique and bounces back at different rates, and she credits personality and farm work ethic for allowing her to get back quickly.

With little to no social media at the time of her accident, Clark said she didn’t know hand cycling even existed. A year after the accident, she began doing just about any kind of physical activity she could, and in 2008 she was introduced to hand cycling. She quickly fell in love with it.

So what is hand cycling? Riders use a bike situated low to the ground, and they use their hands as pedals instead of your feet. If you think it’s as easy as riding a bike, you’d be wrong.

“It’s insanely hard,” Clark said. “I spent 20 years riding a regular bike and you can’t compare the two. On a regular bike on a hill, you can get your whole bodyweight into it. I can’t do that. I’m laying on my back just using my arms. I can’t get my hips and core into it like you can on a bike.”

Clark says if you told her at the time she would ultimately do a 100-mile ride on a hand cycle, she would have laughed at you. She started with five-mile rides and eventually worked her way up to about 20 miles each day.

She became involved with the Kelly Brush Foundation, whose mission is to inspire and empower people with spinal cord injuries to lead active and engaged lives. She’s received three grants from the foundation: one for a ski modification, one for an attachment so she can go horseback riding and a third recently for a new hand cycle. As adaptive equipment is so expensive, the foundation looks to help fund equipment to those with spinal injuries so they can get back to living an active life.

The Kelly Brush Foundation does a ride each summer, starting and finishing at Middlebury College in Vermont. Clark did a 50-mile ride the last three years, and looked to push herself even harder this time around. She asked if anyone had ever done the 100-mile ride, only to learn that many men have completed it but no women had.

That was all the motivation she needed.

“Once I knew that the men were out there had done it and the women hadn’t, I wanted to get that title,” Clark said. “That was my motivation. I wanted that title very bad and I trained my butt off to do it.”

Training her butt off, she did. Clark went to Your Personal Best Fitness Studio in Shelburne Falls three days a week for strength training with trainer Carrie LeDoyt, working extensively on her back to take the pressure off her shoulders for the ride. She worked her way up to doing 100-120 miles on the hand cycle each week, completing a long ride of 61 miles on the Cape the weekend before her 100-mile ride.

“She was already strong when she came to me three years ago,” LeDoyt said of Clark. “I don’t want to take any of the credit at all. It’s everything she’s done and all the work she puts in. She has great endurance, a great attitude and she’s a pleasure to work with. She’s an inspiration to people with spinal cord injuries and really an inspiration for everyone for that matter; the way she never stops, never complains, never quits and keeps her great attitude.”

The 100-mile ride started on a shaky note. Clark received her new hand cycle just one week earlier, and didn’t have much time to learn how it shifts and all the differences between it and her old cycle. She wasn’t going to let that deter her, however.

While hills weren’t a big issue after training in the hilltowns of Western Mass., there was one stretch before the third water stop — the worst stretch on the course she says — where she questioned whether she’d be able to pull it off. Clark kept going though, and once she made it to the next water stop, she knew there was nothing that would stop her on the mission.

She wasn’t alone on the ride. Her physical trainer, Michelle Yargeau, and Juan DelPrado rode behind her the entire 100 miles, allowing her to feel safe from cars where she’s so low to the ground. They also acted as coaches by offering words of encouragement.

After 11 hours, 30 minutes, nine hours and 30 minutes of which she was pedaling for, she arrived back at Middlebury trying to control her emotions after doing something that seemed impossible.

“I just started sobbing,” Clark recalled. “I was so happy that I pulled it off. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. Just to know I did it, I had this level of overwhelming gratefulness for the parts of my body that can still function. There’s so many things that we as able body people don’t think about. It’s just autopilot. After a spinal cord injury, you have a unique perspective and gratefulness for the part of your body that can function, so in that moment I was just thrilled. It was overwhelming happiness. It’s still sinking in. I’m glad I could give back to the foundation.”

She hopes her ride can be an inspiration to those who have suffered spinal cord injuries.

“In my community, there’s a lot of people that get pissed off for being called inspiring,” Clark said. “If I’m doing something physically challenging and they say I’m inspiring, I’m OK with that because I want them to get off the couch and do something with their functioning bodies. Do I think it’s inspiring that I get out of bed every day? No. Is it inspiring that I was able to do the 100-mile ride? Yeah, I hope that can be inspiring.”

In a way of giving back, Clark helps run a support group in Berkshire County for those who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries. She also reaches out to people after they suffer a spinal cord injury to let them know about the Kelly Brush Foundation and the ways it can help.

“One of the missions of Kelly Brush is to give people who just suffered a spinal cord injury information for when they’re ready. If someone is in the hospital, they aren’t interested in adaptive equipment. They’re convinced they’re going to be the one percent that get better. So we try to give the information to the family members so they know that one day when they need it, this organization will be there.”

Not only has she seen the benefits of the foundation first hand, she’s also seen how it has helped others.

“I had someone who was overweight, miserable, drinking every day and drowning in his sorrows,” Clark said. “Now he’s out cycling every day. You wouldn’t even recognize him.”

What’s next for Clark? Just over a week removed from the ride, she’s already looking to do the 100-mile ride again and improve her time. With her level of inner drive, it won’t be a surprise if she continues to accomplish the “impossible.”

Thomas Johnston is a Recorder sports reporter. He can be reached at tjohnston@recorder.com




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