Legs pumping, a message from the heart

June 28, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

CARY, N.C. -- He's the cyclist who got sent to Siberia. But for Syd Lea, a defending Special Olympics World Games gold medalist at the age of 14, international travel is part of the program.

His mother, Tracy, is chairwoman of the U.S. Cycling Federation. His father, Robert, is a seven-time national masters champion. His brother, Bobby, 15, is one of the nation's top junior riders.

Syd had no choice but to get on a bike, and that's what he did when he was 3, one year after his parents learned that he was mentally retarded.

Now a seventh-grader at Easton Middle School, Syd today begins his quest to match his performance at the 1995 World Games, when he won three medals after just turning 10.

"It's a lot of fun watching him race," said Bobby, who is skipping the national junior road championships to support his brother. "I love it when he does well. The look on his face after he gets a medal is just priceless."

Another cyclist, John Drasgow, became the first Maryland medalist yesterday, finishing third in the second-highest division of the 25-kilometer road race before enthusiastic crowds lining the streets of Cary.

Six months ago, Drasgow couldn't ride two miles, according to Maryland coach Charles Archer. Yesterday, he rode approximately 15, and to a casual observer, looked as fast as a Tour de France racer.

Lea is even more of a phenomenon, a licensed member of the U.S. Cycling Federation who competes almost every weekend against top 15-and-under cyclists in mainstream events.

He has trained with the U.S. junior national team in New York, contributed the cycling leg of a Special Olympics national triathlon title in Montana and visited Austria with his family nearly every summer of his life.

His favorite place?

"I think Texas," Lea said.

"But, Syd, you've never been there," his father said, incredulous.

"Well," Lea replied, "my friend has."

Rest assured, Lea will get to Texas eventually. He flew alone from Washington to Omsk, Siberia, last year, a 26-hour journey that included a stopover in Moscow.

Lea stayed one month, training with a Russian coach he had met in Austria and left mesmerized. The language, food and people were unfamiliar. Lea described the experience as "scary." Yet, he endured.

Through cycling, his family has made friends all over the world. One met him in Moscow to help him change planes. Others phoned him daily. But naturally, he grew homesick.

"I called him on Halloween. I was very close to trying to get him home," his mother recalled. "He had brought his Halloween costume. I told him to put it on."

When Tracy phoned back, Syd had not only slipped into his skeleton costume, but also introduced Halloween decorations to his hosts.

"He had brought Halloween to Omsk," Tracy said.

It was a breathtaking moment in a life full of joyous interludes, a life more fulfilling than Lea's parents ever imagined when they learned of his disability at his 2-year-old checkup.

"When they say the words, `mental retardation,' it hits you like a ton of bricks. All sorts of guilt goes through your mind: What happened? What did I do wrong?' " said Tracy, a consultant.

"You have not a clue as to where it's going. There's a lot of denial. You kind of keep looking at the tests in different ways.

"But through sports and traveling, we never stayed at home with our kids. We haven't hidden him. We're not embarrassed by his disability."

The Leas started Syd in a horseback-riding program when he was 4, and he won a gold medal in equestrian at the 1998 Maryland State Games. Next, he wants to try speed skating. But cycling remains his best sport.

He won two golds and a silver competing for New Jersey at the 1995 World Games, before Maryland had a cycling program. He will compete in the 5-kilometer event, 10-kilometer time trial and 15-kilometer road race this week.

"You can measure the improvement in his concentration," said his father, Robert, a psychologist who was a 1963 Pan Am Games gold medalist in rowing and alternate on the '64 Olympic team.

"Before, he couldn't concentrate for more than a quarter of a lap. He'd ride out, look around, his mind would be out of it. Then, to see him go to a whole lap and then a five-lap race, you really see the concentration kick in.

"It's hard to say how much sport improved his level of concentration. But I think without sport we wouldn't be getting all that out of him."

One slogan of Special Olympics is "Training for Life." Cycling not only helps athletes like Lea make friends, but also opens job opportunities. If you're proficient on a bike, Tracy Lea said, you can commute to work.

Within their sport, the Leas have become staunch advocates for the disabled. They organize an annual mountain-bike benefit race on the Eastern Shore, and used part of the proceeds to outfit the Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island cyclists at these Games.

"Syd will be the most decked-out with equipment you'll ever see," said Tracy, laughing. "His equipment is fairly outrageous."

Such are the benefits of coming from a cycling family. But make no mistake -- the family derives its own benefits, drawing inspiration from Syd.

Bobby said the knowledge that his younger brother has finished a race will drive him to the finish line. Tracy recalls following Syd on a difficult hill climb in Austria, knowing she couldn't quit.

His will is indomitable, his spirit infectious.

"All the referees always talk about it," Tracy said. "They say, `If we can get him to quit laughing and smiling as he goes by us each lap, we can get him to do a lot better.' "

Then there was former Olympic cyclist Jack Simes, who had his own reaction to watching the Leas' younger son compete.

"I wish I had as much fun cycling as Syd," he said.

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