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Interview: Paralympic star Wiliam “Billy” Lister

While he was out in South Africa during the para-cycling world champs, we spent some time with William “Billy” Lister and heard insight into his inspirational story of how he dramatically turned is life around over the course of 12 years after a stroke in his teens, to a professional cyclist and Olympian.

We hear about hard work, overcoming, sacrifice, and the daily motivation of a singular goal of the top step in Tokyo. We find out about the differences and similarities between elite and para cycling, as well as what it takes to be on the top level.

We also find out about his use of sport psychology, what it’s like to be a full-time professional athlete, and his future aspirations inside and outside of para-cycling.

Tell us more about you background and how you got into Paralympic cycling?

My background starts out when I was 17 years old and suffered a slow and regressive stroke, as a complication from invasive Brain surgery I had to save my life from a fatal brain abnormality. My life was devoid of any activity or ambition for the better part of 12 years as I navigated through a state of self-preservation purgatory. It wasn’t until 2011 when I met the Challenged Athletes Foundation; in San Diego, CA that I got on a bike for the first momentous time since my 17th birthday. It spanned the next few years, but I taught myself how to ride all over again; and in 2014 I entered my first ever Paralympic Cycling bike race – an Individual Time Trial on the Road. I did pretty well, and ever since then have been racing bikes.

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

The greatest highlight in my career has to be Paralympic Trials last summer in Charlotte, NC – where I finished 1st overall among 2 wheel male cyclists and qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In 2017, have had a crucial build-up year securing 2 World Championship podium positions (Both on the Track & the Road World Championships), as well adding a Road World Cup medal.

What are your goals leading up to the future?

The short term goal is currently all sights set on the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020. I have personal aspirations to compete through Paris 2024; as well as on home soil in Los Angeles 2028 – becoming a 4X Paralympian.

What motivates you in your daily training?

The singular motivation I have is to achieve my ultimate goal of a Gold medal at the Paralympic Games. Every day is an effort and progression towards obtaining that objective.

Paralympic cyclist William “Billy” Lister

What frustrates you about Paralympic sport?

I do wish that the Paralympic movement gained the notoriety it deserves as Elite athleticism, on the same level as our Olympic counterparts. However, the exposure and acceptance in the United States lags behind the rest of the World. It’s a slow process acquiring awareness; but over the past few quadrennials, Paralympic sport has gained dramatic momentum across the globe.

I think in comparison to other Paralympic sports, Cycling gets a fair amount of recognition; being one of the top-tiered sports. Over the years the UCI (International Cycling Union) has increased its awareness into Para cycling; however the sport is dwarfed in contrast to the coverage, interest & recognition of Professional and Olympic Cycling.

What makes Paralympic sport so great?

To me, the greatness of Paralympic sport is its humbling unfettered athletic prowess. Paralympic sport is very much the lesser distinguished platform compared to its Olympic sport counterpart. However, what is little understood about Paralympic sport lies in the comprehension that Paralympic athletes are just as elite, strong, fast and powerful as their fellow Olympic competitors. Paralympic athletes dedicate themselves, and sacrifice as much – if not more – than any other elite & professional athlete on the planet; with a fraction of the recognition. That self-effacing quality is something that can only be found in athletes who compete for the love of sport – and the love of life!

Do you feel you get the support you require?

I am tremendously fortunate to receive support from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team; in terms of financial assistance and resource disposal. I have the opportunity to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO – which affords me the greatest athletic care available. The USOC does an extraordinary job in delivering the support and resources directly to its athletes, and their athletic benefit.

Paralympic cyclist William “Billy” Lister by Bill Whitehead

What do you enjoy most about being a full time athlete?

I no longer despise Mondays like I used to when I was a part of the corporate world! Every day has the freedom to get better, in any possible way – in every possibly way!

What do you think gives you a competitive advantage?

I like to think my athletic upbringing mixed chemically with sport being torn away from me at the age of 17; and for the better part of a decade living a sedentary life – my mindset is transformed into a willingness to sacrifice everything I have for the chance to win Gold.

Do you make use of sport psychology, and if so, what techniques?

Yes! I use Sport Psychology on a regular basis, and have been for the past 2 1/2 years. Leading into the Paralympic Games and currently, I’ve been doing a lot of Mindfulness technique work. I have found it clears my mind, and focuses on the process – which so far has been translating into an increase in results. I’m very excited for future progression in this aspect of sport performance.

Do you have any pre-race rituals or superstitions?

I am a very obsessive superstitious individual – so my pre-race rituals are all based on routine. Leading into any big race, I like to establish a routine leading into race day – And then rise & repeat each day and on race day!

What would you say are the essential mental characteristics required for elite level cycling?

I would say a twisted ability for self-suffering agony & determination; along with a mindset to outlast the rider next to you. I’ve found in elite level cycling where many within a field are on similar levels; the mental battle of attrition often will be the decider of success.

What makes, in your opinion, a champion?

That’s a tough question – Because I think champions are made from within. I think what’s necessary to become a champion is the belief that your mind is stronger than your heart; but that your heart is the strongest part of your body.

“I think what’s necessary to become a champion is the belief that your mind is stronger than your heart; but that your heart is the strongest part of your body” – William Lister.

What is your daily routine (on and off the bike) like?

My training regimen is 7 days a week – Not all of those are hard days of course. Day-to-day looks similar to on my bike – anywhere from 90 minutes active recovery to 4 hours hard – followed by some light stretching and rolling a lot of sore and fatigued muscles. Depending on the day, I’ll do Strength & Conditioning 3 days a week for roughly 2 – 3 hours. And the rest of my time is perfectly filled with Recovery – Sports Medicine, Cold Plunge, Normatecs, Massage – and juggling meetings with Sports Psych & Nutrition – it’s a full time gig!

Other than cycling, what hobbies/interests do you have?

I gotta admit at the current moment, I don’t explore many hobbies – simply for a lack of time and commitment. While I do take some time off each year, a lot of that time is spent relaxing with friends and family. Although I have started to get an itch to learn how to Scuba dive!

Paralympic cyclist William “Billy” Lister

What are your plans post your cycling career?

There’s no better feeling than riding and racing my bike – so I have a sense that after my career is over, I’ll still be out there pushing the limits – just maybe not every day. I’d like to start my own business one day, centralized in the Adaptive Sports world.

If you could give the readers one insight into what it takes to be an elite level cyclist, and especially a Paralympic one, what would it be?

Treat every day as an opportunity to better yourself – the little things add up at the end of each hour, day, year, and decade.

What motivation or advice would you give to young athletes, especially Paralympic athletes?

My biggest piece of advice to aspiring young Paralympic (And Olympic) athletes is develop a mindset that positively allows you to always say Yes. Put yourself in a position for opportunity, and when it comes, say YES and take the ride on the journey.

If you could have the readers remember only one thing about you after reading this, what would it be?

I would tell the readers to ignite their Never:

Never Believe

Never Learn

Never Known

Never Past

Never Now

Never Future

Never Give in

Never Stop

Always Never

Always always!

Be sure to follow his journey onto and beyond Tokyo 2020!

Matthew de Freitas

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