As a tandem cyclist, Paul Shields has raced in all types of conditions and navigated difficult courses, which means he knows a thing or two about dealing with the unexpected.
Shields, who first took up competitive cycling in 2016, remembers one race in particular the year after he began competing. It was the 2017 Para-cycling Nationals in Grand Junction, Colorado. The race was up in the mountains, and it was March.
It can get extremely cold up in the mountains, particularly at night. But it was in the middle of the day, and Shields wasn’t dressed for the 30-degree temperatures that greeted him.
“We were putting on layers and more layers because we were sitting there waiting,” recalled the 51-year-old Shields, a St. Louis native who moved to the Dallas area in 1993. “When they said ‘go’, I took a deep breath in, and that cold air hit my lungs. It took me a full minute to recover.”
The course itself was one of the toughest Shields can remember. He finished fifth in the time trials and fourth in the road race. Adjusting to a course or extreme weather conditions is a lot like navigating the challenges of daily life. Despite this, Shields exudes a calm, positive approach to it all.
I’m not afraid to try things. Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be a brand-new day. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, other than learning from it.
As an only child, Shields was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. He participated in sports even as his vision began to decline. Track was something he did with relative ease; however it was while playing for his high school football team that Shields began to learn how to adapt to his vision loss.
Since practices were mostly held during the day, he performed well. However, games were always at night, and Shields had trouble keeping up with the fast pace that a sport such as football demands.
As soon as the lighting changed, it was an almost impossible task. For most people, it’s bright enough. But when you have RP and no night vision, it’s a rough transition.
Shields earned a bachelor’s degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a master’s in Information Systems with the University of Phoenix online program. He owned a gym before selling the business earlier this summer.
Outdoor activities were a big part of Shields’s life growing up. He ran in numerous 5K races in the 1990’s and enjoys hiking. He first discovered tandem cycling after some friends recommended he attend a development camp through the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). He competed in his first race at the 2016 Texas Time Trials, finishing second out of four participants.
Shields got his first win at the 2019 Texas Time Trials. He and his pilot, Joseph Matta, finished the 40-kilometer distance in 54 minutes.
That was probably the one we did the best in. That put us six or seven minutes ahead of the second-place finisher.
In tandem cycling, the blind or visually impaired rider, or stoker, sits in the back and controls the horsepower. The sighted rider, called a pilot, is in the front focusing on navigation and gears along with powering the bike with the stoker.
The pilot and stoker must always have similar skill and be on the same page. Shields recalls one race in Alabama where he and Matta wound up on an unusually steep hill. They were speeding downhill on a two-lane road with several turns. Shields had no idea what was happening until Matta told him afterward what he was doing.
I (couldn’t) see anything that was coming. But I had to have total faith that he was going to get us to the bottom and not panic.
Shields met Foreseeable Future’s founder, Griffin Pinkow, at a race in Tennessee. The two had lunch and became friends. Shields applied for funding in 2019 and 2021 and was accepted both years.
The logistics of traveling with several people and shipping bikes to races can be costly. Shields is grateful the foundation is willing to empower blind athletes with the resources and financial assistance that they need to succeed.
“A lot of what the Foreseeable Future has done for us is provide that extra little push that takes the bite out of that whole process. It all adds up. Even small allocations help you think, ‘OK, that’s one less thing I have to worry about’.”
In October, Shields plans to compete at the Challenged Athletes Foundation Aspen Medical Products San Diego Triathlon. It will be his first competitive triathlon, but his approach will be the same as in any other unfamiliar situation: stay positive and prepare for the unexpected.