Chris Sheehan – Bridging The Gap

Chris Sheehan

“Chris Sheehan thought he had completed a big chunk of his learning only to realize that the harder lessons lay ahead.” Stroke Smart, January/February 2002

Story by Mary Sheehan & Beth Hernandez

It was the evening after Chris Sheehan’s college graduation from Colorado University. The celebration on December 21, 1998 moved from a restaurant to a hospital room where Chris’ closest friends and family ascended from around the country. Chris had suffered two back-to-back strokes. The first one was a Transient ischemic attack or mini stroke. A few hours later, the second stroke hit. This one was massive. At 29, life for Chris Sheehan backpedaled. He was about to participate in the most intense, endurance ride of his life. The stamina that would steer Chris on his long-road to recovery would come from lessons learned in a California cul-de-sac.

Chris Sheehan was accustomed to being a late bloomer. A native of suburban San Jose, CA, Chris was the youngest of three boys, a skinny, little, blond kid who liked to rough around with his brothers, catch lizards, and ride bikes from the end of the street to the cul-de-sac with his best friend, Paul Willerton. Both boys, highly competitive by nature, excelled in every sport they tried, but Paul always had a slight competitive edge over Chris.

“Our neighborhood used to play a game: Punt the football to the fully-padded-one-kid-team Chris Sheehan, and see if he could run it back against everyone for a touchdown. He kept a chart on the wall of his room to keep track of how he did in this game. I looked one time, and out of 88 punt returns, he had scored one touchdown. One. To Chris, that was enough to keep going. Those were odds he could deal with.” Paul Willerton

Over the years, Chris and Paul grew close in friendship and in their shared passion for cycling. In the 8th grade, they joined the San Jose Bicycle Club and got hooked on racing. Chris’ older brother and his friend Craig Schommer*, were also hooked on racing and competed in races at northern California’s only velodrome which was conveniently located in San Jose. Everyday afterschool, Chris and Paul would ride off on their clunky 10-speeds to ride the hills of Northern California until dark. They would return home each night, tired, sweaty, and inspired. Their commitment to racing swelled.

The timing was perfect. Cycling was becoming a popular sport in the USA due largely to the success of Greg LeMond, a professional road cyclist, reigning World Champion and the first American to win the Tour de France.

At age 17, the coach of the Plymouth – Reebok Team, Warren Gibson, asked Chris and Paul to join the junior team. One morning, while the team was getting ready for a race in Squaw Valley, California, Chris suffered a grand mal seizure. The family doctor confirmed the diagnosis: epilepsy. A less determined person would have given up at that point but Chris was convinced he could overcome all obstacles with hard work, and work hard he did. Chris was only 18.  He had just started college. He loved being on a cycling team.  He had a bright future ahead of him but in an instant, it seemed to have been stripped away. He was no longer allowed to drive a car and the medications were powerful with complicated side effects. Chris spent more time with his neurologist than his friends.

“If you really want Chris to do something, you might have to tell him he can’t.” – Paul Willerton

When his year of eligibility as a junior was drawing to a close without a guaranteed spot on the senior team, Sheehan, devastated from his prognosis was at an all time low. However, when he got the green light to get back on a bike, Chris picked himself up and persevered. As a first year senior rider, Chris upgraded to a Cat 1 racer in less than 2 months producing solid results in Northern California’s highly competitive regional scene. By early spring, Chris won a stage at the Tour of Oregon.  Most 18 year olds were there just to show they could survive the race. Not Chris Sheehan. He won. Chris’ winning finish at the Tour of Oregon sealed the deal for coach Gibson. “You’re on the team!” Gibson told Sheehan after the victory.

That fall, Chris rode in the Tour de L’Avenir, a 10 day stage race that started in Paris and finished in Luxembourg. It was Chris’ first taste of international racing. His race ended with a crash on the cobbled roads into Roubaix but Chris came back the next year and made it to the finish line in Luxembourg.

In 1990, Chris got an invitation from Chris Carmichael, coach of the U.S. National team, to race in Europe. After 6 weeks abroad, Chris made the decision to stay and he joined the Dijon Olympique Cydinse a top amateur team based in Auxerre, France. Two years later, in 1992, Chris was signed to race for the newly formed Saturn Cycling Team which was eventually recognized as the longest running major cycling team on the domestic scene in its 12-year history. Saturn had a very successful year with two of the riders earning sports on the Olympic team. In 1993, the team turned pro and Chris had the chance to finally race with his childhood heroes. When completing in the Tour DuPont, Chris fell in love with North Carolina, a state he now calls home.

“Life is about taking chances.” – Chris Sheehan

In 1994, Chris decided it was time to set his sight on other aspirations and enrolled in Colorado University pursuing a degree in Finance. Nearly four years later, Chris was celebrating a new milestone: college graduate. Once again, the timing was perfect. Life was a straightaway for Chris. He had overcome many adversities and realized goals that the average person would never aspire to achieve. With family and close friends on the sideline to celebrate this next step in his life, Chris was crossing another finish line in first place. He had a good job awaiting him. The future looked bright.

The day after his graduation, Chris bid farewell to his parents at the airport and met his housemate Mike Cude, and former coach Warren Gibson for dinner. Chris was driving home when he started to slur his words.  He failed to make the turn toward home. He drifted slowly into the middle of the intersection.  His passengers managed to stop the car and immediately drove Chris to the hospital.

Chris Sheehan

Chris’ parents, who had just landed back in San Jose from the graduation celebration, repacked their bags and got on a plane headed back to Boulder. Paul and his girlfriend Cindy made it as fast as they could from Oregon. Chris’ brother Jim, and wife, Jennie, flew in from New York City. Middle brother, Jeff, made his way from California.   Phone calls started to pour-in from friends around the country including, now, three-time Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond, and Tour de France veteran, Kevin Livingston, who once raced with Chris.

Chris was in the hospital for five weeks. His prognosis was not good. Because both strokes had struck the same area of the brain, his neurologist said he was lucky he was not paralyzed.

Chris could see what was going on around him. He comprehended where we has, he just didn’t know why. His problems were mostly cognitive. Simple tasks, such as being asked what a toothbrush was for then combing it through his hair on response, were infuriating for Chris. His concentration and memory were severely impaired and his speech was slurred.  He had difficulty reading and writing. He knew the road to recovery was going to be long and hard and frustrating. He dug deep and found that five year old racing from the cul de sac spirit again.

Chris entered a daily rehab program for physical, speech, and occupational therapy at a nearby Boulder center shortly after his 5-week hospital stay. Most patients were seniors, not peers. Chris made good progress and although it was slow, he made a full recovery despite his doctors’ best predictions of 50-75%.  They forbid him from the bike. Too risky. What if he stroked again? The odds were chancy. Chris took his chances. Instead of catching a ride on the rehab bus, he would ride his bike to the center, park his bike in the bushes, and walk in with the bus riders. He didn’t want to the doctors to find out. Too risky.

Nearly 20 years later after several career moves and cross state hops, Chris is manager and owner of Uptown Cycles in Charlotte, NC, a full service bike shop. In addition to managing the shop, he runs training classes and leads group rides. Chris remains active in the local cycling world sponsoring cycling teams and occasionally competing in local races.

Chris’ best friend, Paul Willerton, went on to become a world class cyclist and is a former teammate of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. During a recent cycling blog interview, Paul was asked, “What cyclist do you admire the most?” His answer? It could have been Greg. It could have been Lance.

“No one may remember him or anything he did on a bike. I moved next door to him in San Jose, CA when I was five. He was the least likely professional cyclist ever, yet he overcame the odds and pursued his dreams. I am infinitely proud of my friend Chris [Sheehan]. Knowing someone and getting to do so many different things with a person – nearly since clear memory begins – that is special.” – Paul Willerton Chris Sheehan

*Note: Chris’ brother Jim quit cycling after a crash and slide on a newly constructed road. While the doctor was removing pebbles and grit from his back, Jim decided he’d rather be a swimmer. Jim’s friend, Craig Schommer, went on to become a professional cyclist and represented the USA at the Olympics in Korea.

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