The Blueprint for Athletes Leadville Trail 100 MTB is a race some athletes never dare to tackle, but André Szucs is not one of them. Born with a below-the-knee amputation, the para-athlete has a lifetime of experience facing – and overcoming – big challenges.
You could say Szucs has come full circle, as he has returned to mountain biking – his first sport – after time spent on triathlon, surfing and swimming (he competed for Brazil in the Paralympcs in 2004 and 2008). With a preference for trails over the road, it seems as if Leadville is the race he has been preparing for his whole life.
We talked to Szucs about growing up as a para-athlete, how he has been preparing for his first Leadville Trail 100 MTB and what he hopes other para-athletes learn as they, too, set and work toward big goals.
Q: You had surgery very young and you’ve been wearing prosthetics ever since. Do you think sports growing up helped you adapt to that? Just knowing how your body moved in relation to that?
Absolutely. With my congenital condition, it’s always been a part of my life – wearing prosthetics – so for me it’s a very natural thing that is pretty much just like wearing my shoes in the morning. It’s that simple. I just wake up in the morning and fit my leg on and I’m good to go for the rest of the day and just take my leg off at night when I’m ready to go to bed again. It’s very natural and I never have time to be focusing on that as an issue. It’s just something that is very organic for me.
Q: As a kid did you ever have any obstacles in your way with people thinking you couldn’t do something because of your disability?
Growing up it was quite interesting. Obviously during school you get this exposed to social skills and getting together with your friends – and when it’s time to exercise you get in touch with a lot of sports: volleyball, basketball, swim, you name it. I did have some particular activities that I wasn’t really able to do and I was totally okay with that. I’d always try of course. Before making any conclusions, I would try first and then have a better understanding of, Okay, I can do this to a certain point or I can’t do that at all, and I would just go from there. If I couldn’t do it at all, I would just move on and find something else. When I was a kid that was my way to see before talking to the teacher and saying, “I can’t really do this, but I can do this instead.” I never had any issues with that.
Q: And what sport did you really start doing first?
My very first sport was mountain biking. Skateboarding was something I started at the same time, back in 1992. That’s when I really got into meeting fun people and doing activities together. Mountain biking was the very first sport that I would say I did at more of a high-end level. Skateboarding was more like a skill; kind of a test. What can I do on a skateboard with my amputation? It was more of a curiosity than just going all out. I never actually dug deep into skateboarding to see how far I could go; so mountain biking was definitely my first sport and that went on for eight straight years. I would go biking every single weekend with my friends exploring the trails – and had a blast with it.
Q: And since then you’ve done sports such as surfing and triathlon and a little bit of everything else, too.
Yes. In 2000, I discovered swimming. That was my second sport where in a very short period of time – a couple of months – I realized I had enough time to fight for a spot in the Paralympic Games. Having that background as a cyclist with mountain biking I built some cardio and some endurance that was really good preparation for swimming and my development was really fast. This was all when I was back in Brazil and I even was receiving a grant from my country to swim, so that was my income for eight years. So I really pushed the boundaries on swimming and I tried two Paralympic Games – I was in Athens 2004 and Beijing in 2008 – and after that I decided to quit on trying for the Paralympics. It was very difficult and I never got into a spot to go; I was just one more in a crowd trying for a sport and unfortunately it didn’t happen. It was, however, a great experience; I got to travel a lot and got to maximize my skills into swimming, which led me to triathlons. In 2005 I did my first sprint distance triathlon and in 2007 I did my very first IRONMAN in Brazil. I’ve done several 70.3 and Olympic distances, but I always struggled with running. It was very hard to run; it still is. I enjoy more cycling these days because that’s the sport I really excel at and it’s not that bad for my amputation. I can go for hours and hours biking; that is unlikely with running and I can’t really do that.
Q: Have you done the Leadville Trail 100 MTB before? What led you to the race?
It will be my very first time, but Leadville has been on my bucket list for a long time. It’s the kind of event that seems out there. It’s nice to have the kind of background that I started with back in 1992, back when it was older-school equipment and there were less capable bikes. Now I’m back to mountain biking and it’s just a special event to me. It’s a culmination of all that experience acquired back in the ‘90s with the newer technology of today. And now I get to participate in Leadville, so that’s priceless to me.
Q: How’s training been for it? With your extensive background and all the sports you’ve done, you’ve kept up aerobically, I’m sure. But at the same time, going into a race with all of the elevation changes, it’s going to be a whole other beast.
For me everything’s so perfect so far. I just moved a month ago from San Diego to Boulder, so I’ve had the altitude training going for a month now. I’ve been training here in town and then going even higher than Boulder itself – because we are at about 6,000 feet and I’m going up to around 12,000 feet for my training rides on the weekends. It’s like a perfect preparation and the best timing to move to Boulder.
Q: It Sounds like you have built your base up in San Diego and then been able to prepare for the elevation with your move.
Yes, it was tough. My very first ride [in Boulder] was very difficult and I definitely felt the difference. A couple of days in – actually, I’ll say two weeks in – I was feeling much stronger. Right now I’m very confident to race Leadville.
Q: How far do riders typically go in training then? Are you doing hundred mile rides beforehand or kind of saving your energy up, like how marathoners don’t usually run a 26.2 before their race?
I was pushing for more distance a little earlier. For example, last weekend I did about 40 miles and before that I was doing 60 or 70 miles on my training rides on the weekends. It’s difficult to do that during the week because I have two little ones – a two- and a five-year-old – so I try to go ride in the early mornings. During the week at 6 a.m. I’ll do a quick ride of maybe 20 or 30 miles and on the weekend, that’s when I wake up very early and then go for four or five plus hour rides. That has been my preparation.
Q: So it was when you were living in San Diego that you got involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), right?
Yes, I got involved with them a long time ago, around 2005. I actually got my very first running leg with CAF, through a grant application, and that was my very first interaction with them. They have been amazing supporters of my endeavors and goals with sports. I’m also currently doing XTERRAs and off-road triathlons and every year they support me with that.
Q: Do you have any of those races coming up? Or are you just focusing on Leadville right now?
I am doing both; I actually just qualified for the XTERRA World Championship two weeks ago in Beaver Creek, which is also around here. So, I am going to Maui in early December! It’s much shorter distances if you compare it to Leadville, it’s not really related. I like it because it’s just the perfect amount of distance for each sport. It brings back the memories of doing triathlons and IRONMAN and it’s just a fun environment to be on the dirt mountain biking. Over time I’m finding I’m losing interest in training on-road and I’m ready to be off-roading right now.
Q: And what do you think you’re looking forward to the most with Leadville coming up?
I managed to go to the training camp they did two weeks ago. Now I have a good sense of the course and got to see about half of it. It’s exactly what I expected. It’s going to be very difficult; lots of hills and terrain changes everywhere. You start in town on road and then go into some fire roads and then very technical climbs with sandy, slippery sections and very rocky sections. There are all kinds of different aspects there. It’s nice because you become a better rider by getting in touch with so many different terrains. It’s fun. You get distracted with the challenge of mountain biking and the scenery and you basically forget how tired you are. I think that’s the beauty of those events. I think the scenery and how fun it is to ride; it kind of overrules your pain and how tired you are and the distance. I think that’s what’s special about it.
Q: And do you get to interact with or hear from athletes a lot that wear prosthetics?
That’s kind of a big part of my role with CAF is to mentor others. That’s what they do basically, they connect athletes around the world with similar disabilities, hoping to share knowledge between them; it’s just a win-win situation. I’ve encountered different situations and new athletes coming on board – younger athletes, especially – trying to solve a specific issue with their equipment. For me it’s been always a pleasure to be a part of this and help. These days as well, with my goal of completing Leadville, I’m getting messages on social media from people interested in knowing what kind of equipment I’m using and wondering how I connect my prosthetic to the pedal. It’s been very cool. At the end of the day I get to share with them to never underestimate yourself in any activity. Like I was saying before, I would rather try first and then make my own conclusions, instead of just a preconceived, Okay I cannot do this. I’m not even going to try. Don’t ever underestimate yourself.
Q: Lastly, what do you think about the new Athlinks.com?
I find the Athlinks platform very informative for compiling all results, events and performance from an individual turning the visualization very easy. I’m excited to explore the platform with more consistency moving forward!
Find Like this spotlight and want to read about more inspirational Athlinks members? Check out our Q&A with “One Armed Willie”, or interview with cancer survivor and awareness advocate, Randy Kam. Then make sure to cruise on over to the ALL NEW Athlinks.com, and claim your finish time from every finish line you’ve ever crossed!