Better than love, success or money, disappointment always motivates the best because it's internal.
So Fremont's Tom Davis knew exactly what to do as soon as the handcycling competition in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics ended: get home and work on getting better for his next chance in Tokyo. He'd finished fifth in the time trials and sixth in the road race, seconds away from earning a medal, and Davis didn't like his performances. His focus was refined.
Then, the Tokyo games were postponed in 2020, and every part of Davis's structure and training could have become discombobulated. After all, elite athletes train specifically to peak at the correct time, and Davis's carefully prepared schedule of events leading to the Paralympics was shredded.
The rub was Davis felt he didn't perform as well in Rio because he let the moment and the stress of expectations affect him. He tried to force the results instead of just letting them happen.
“I let it get to me,” he said. “I wasn't being me. I was trying to be somebody different. That doesn't work well for me and never works out well.”
And the postponement was a bit of an uppercut, an open challenge to his resolve to do better this time but accepting the things out of his control and leaving them to God to handle.
So Davis, 44, leaned even further into his family and his faith. Davis and his wife, Jamie, have four children who require everything from supervision, tutoring and feeding to transportation. If anything, the Paralympics gave Davis more unplanned time to spend with his family.
“The good thing was, I was able to make the best out of it,” he said. “I was able to just stay home and train and if I wanted to take a day off and do something else, I just did it. There wasn't another race to leave for on the schedule looming overhead. It was kind of like recharging your batteries.”
Being in the U.S. Army and getting injured taught Davis to adapt, and he'd always known God had steered him to handcycling with a purpose. Like everything else in his life, God was saying, “Hey, relax, I got this,” Davis believes.
Serving in Iraq on June 3, 2006, Davis was a U.S. Army staff sergeant when the truck he was riding in triggered a roadside bomb. Riding shotgun, Davis lost his left leg above the knee, broke both forearms, fractured his right knee and vertebra in his back, and cracked some bones in his head. He was also diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He recovered in the hospital for six or seven weeks and then spent 15 months rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
It was while Davis was at Walter Reed that one of his therapists suggested he try a handcycle. A former high school distance runner in Reading, Michigan, handcycling made him feel like a kid again.
Because he was fully medically retired, Davis didn't need a job, but handcycling became his passion. He won his first of five straight Boston Marathon Paracycling championships in 2013. He just missed qualifying for the 2012 London Paralympics but qualified for Brazil four years later.
“I didn't show my faith and shrunk back and didn't do the things I was supposed to do,” Davis said about his performance in Brazil. “Afterwards, I remember going home and just feeling like a failure and I had let God down and I didn't want to ever feel that again.”
With no race on the schedule, Davis and Jamie hosted one last August. That led to some new relationships, and when the U.S. Paralympic Time Trials happened in Minneapolis in mid-June, Davis was confident, relaxed and focused. He figured a time of 23:00 would qualify.
He finished in 23:01 to earn one of the three remaining U.S. positions.
“The struggle was remembering why I do it, to glorify God,” he said. “I keep my focus there and control only the things that I can control. I left everything up to God and just focused on riding my bike.
“The Bible says the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love others. My purpose was to go there and ride my bike and ride it to glorify God. That's why I started doing this back in 2011. Hopefully, people can hear my story and see where my faith is at and they can see me overcome challenges and maybe that gives them hope and helps them.”
Tokyo will be much different than Rio, a much more challenging course with major climbs that are hard to simulate on Indiana roads. But now Davis is different as well, better prepared, a veteran in every sense, a man who learned to use disappointment for motivation.
“It's always been about making it there, and now it's make it there and do well,” Davis said. “It's not about the moment in time, it's about constantly refining your faith and character. It's a lifelong process.”
When: Tuesday-Sept. 5
Number of sports: 22