As a teenager, Billy Lister had a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side and temporarily unable to walk. About 17 years later, he finished the best race of his life Saturday at the Paralympic trials in North Carolina.
Lister, 34, completed the 22-kilometer race with a personal best of 31:29, which won him first place in his category of upright two-wheel cycling, and a spot on the U.S. Paralympic cycling team for the September Paralympic Games in Brazil.
“Representing team USA in Rio is something like no other and it’s pretty surreal,” said Lister, a Cold Spring Harbor native. “It’s just stinking cool.”
His qualification, which Lister described as a “once-in-a-lifetime feeling” was the result of a year and a half of focused training. In January 2015, the former commodities trader moved to Colorado Springs to live and train full time among hundreds of athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“It was treating not every day just like your last day but every workout as if it were your last,” Lister said of his regimen, which was made up of more than 35 hours of training per week.
Five years ago, Lister relearned how to ride a bicycle. He hadn’t touched one for more than a decade, when he was diagnosed at age 15 with an AVM, an acute brain abnormality. Though surgery was successful, it caused his brain to swell, and at age 17, he had a stroke, which severely weakened the left side of his body. The former athlete, who played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse for Cold Spring Harbor High School, could no longer no longer play sports.
“It was a slow and aggressive process,” Lister said. “Each day, I woke up and couldn’t do something I could do before.”
Lister became a para-athlete after attending a para-triathlon camp run by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides grants to athletes with disabilities. Here, he relearned how to swim and got on a bicycle for the first time in years.
Relearning how to ride a bicycle wasn’t easy; there were a lot of falls, but he was determined, Lister said. Two years ago, he entered his first bike race and has been competing since, riding a modified bicycle that is controlled and operated from his right hand.
“Riding a bike is obviously a challenge, an amazingly fun challenge,” Lister said.
With two months until the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Lister said the hard work begins now. As a para-athlete, his goal was to qualify as a Paralympian. Now, he’s looking to win the gold for Team USA.