By Laura McAlister
Jennifer Schuble always thought she would serve her country, but she’s doing it in a way she never expected.
This summer, Jennifer will join the U.S. Paracycling Team for the Paralympics in London. It will be her second time to compete in the Paralympics, and this time she hopes to bring home even more medals than before.
The Homewood resident and Houston native took home two silvers and one gold in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. Since she only took up cycling seriously in 2007, that’s no small feat.
It’s even more impressive when you consider what the 35-year-old has been through to make her second trip to the Paralympics.
Jennifer grew up in Texas and was always an athlete, although not a cyclist. She played soccer and excelled in track. When it came to a career, she had dreams of working for NASA.
“I was obsessed with space and wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “I realized that wasn’t going to be easy. It was about as easy as winning the lottery, so I decided to go the military route to be a pilot.”
After high school graduation, Jennifer received a scholarship to Marion Military Institute. After Marion, Jennifer went on to West Point.
During rigorous training there, Jennifer received a traumatic brain injury — so severe, she qualified as a disabled citizen veteran.
Jennifer, then 20, wasn’t giving up, though. At Marion, she’d become familiar with nearby Tuscaloosa and decided to take up studies at the University of Alabama. Tragedy struck her again, this time in the form of a multi-car accident. She again received injuries to her head as well as her arm and hand.
She recovered, but there was still one final shoe to drop. At 27 years old, Jennifer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Jennifer kept on going. She graduated and got a job at the Honda plant in Lincoln. She now works as an engineering change controller at Mercedes in Vance.
While finishing school and entering the workforce, she always remained active. But she never had any thoughts about competing in the Paralympics.
“I don’t even think I knew what they were,” she said. “I’d never even heard of Lakeshore.”
Jennifer was working out at the Jewish Levite Community Center when a member told her about the Lakeshore Foundation. Because of her injury at West Point, Jennifer qualified to train there.
In addition to being the official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site, the Lakeshore Foundation also provides rehab and training for disabled veterans.
It was Jennifer’s Lakeshore trainers who encouraged her to focus on cycling. It turned out to be good advice, Jennifer said.
In August, she’ll go to London as one of the top three paracyclists in the world. She’ll compete in five events; in one, she’s broken the world record. She can run the velodrome – a circular track that slants inward at a 45-degree angle ridden with bikes with fixed gears and no brakes – 500 meter in 38 seconds. That’s the event for which she won her gold medal during the 2008 Paralympics. She also won a silver medal for the 3K pursuit on the velodrome.
Although she has broken records on the velodrome, Jennifer had never even ridden on one until five years ago. Her first attempt wasn’t so successful.
“I just decided to try it, and I fell over,” she laughs. “I didn’t realize how bad my balance had gotten.”
While MS, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, made activities like running difficult for Jennifer, cycling proved to be just what this athlete needed.
“With MS, my feet start to get floppy, especially when I’m running outside in the heat,” Jennifer said. “With cycling they’re strapped in, controlled. I can also use my hips when it starts to get hard on my feet.”
Jennifer will spend about three weeks in London for the Paralympics. She leaves at the first of August. In the meantime, she’s about to start rigorous training, even more strenuous than her daily rides and two to three days a week at Lakeshore doing weight and balance work.
She said she’ll be spending many of her weekends in Atlanta and Los Angeles, which have velodrome tracks.
Jennifer hopes to return from London with more gold medals to add to her collection. If not, that’s no big deal. She’s been through lots of daunting experiences, and losing a race isn’t the worst of them.
“This isn’t my life,” she said. “I’m the Jennifer people see in Homewood always riding her bike. I’m the Jennifer working at Mercedes, and I’m also the Jennifer people see walking her bulldogs.
“I have another life. I just enjoy the challenge, and I enjoy the stress relief.”