Despite stiff headwinds, Paralympian pedals, runs and swims her way to Tokyo

July 15, 2021
Paralympian Allysa Seely poses with her bike. She won the gold at the Rio Paralympics and trains in Colorado.
Paralympian Allysa Seely poses with her bike. She won the gold at the Rio Paralympics in 2016 and trains in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Allysa Seely.

Try climbing a steep hill on your bike when a storm is bearing down on you.

Sometimes you pedal and pedal, but feel like you’re making no progress.

Allysa Seely clinched the Paralympic gold medal in Rio in 2016, is a three-time world champion in the triathlon and has won six medals at the world championships.

Celebrate the Tokyo Summer Games with a free vaccine

When? Saturday, July 31 from noon to 2 p.m.

What? UCHealth medical providers will be offering free Pfizer vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

Where? On the plaza at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, 200 S Sierra Madre St., Colorado Springs.

Who is eligible? Anyone ages 12 and older.

Yet, Seely, who lives and trains in Colorado Springs, recently posted a telling insight on Twitter: “If one phrase could explain my life, it would be ‘uphill and into the wind.’”

No kidding.

Seely, now 32, faced her first cataclysmic health challenge back in 2008, soon after completing her first triathlon as a college athlete at Arizona State University.

She began suffering strange symptoms including headaches, tingling in her limbs, partial paralysis, chronic pain and seizures. She later learned she had what’s known as Chiari II malformation, basilar invagination, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Seely ultimately had to have her left leg amputated below the knee.

Her medical team doubted she could compete ever again in triathlon, but Seely proved them wrong and became a star paratriathlete.

Allysa Seely: fully vaccinated and training for Tokyo

Paralympian Allysa Seely on the deck of the pool poses with her service dog, Mowgli.
Allysa Seely always loved running. Then, she fell in love with the triathlon because of the variety of sports. Here, she poses at the pool with her service dog, Mowgli. Photo courtesy of Allysa Seely.

Fast forward to 2020.

Allysa Seely was training hard and on track to defend her 2016 gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Then, the worst pandemic in a century hit. Of course, everyone felt like they were pedaling uphill and into the wind then. But, on top of the pandemic and uncertainty about the Tokyo Games, Seely faced a fresh batch of health problems.

For starters, her illness put her at great risk if she got COVID-19. So, she had to be extremely careful. She quarantined with her two dogs in Colorado Springs and did well until about July of 2020 when she started to feel terrible and had to be hospitalized. After being released, she still wasn’t feeling well and could barely run a quarter of a mile. It was then that she went to see specialists at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

Her medical team found a blood clot in her heart and endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the heart’s inner lining.

As Seely shared with Team USA, she had a rare reaction to antibiotics, which prompted fears that her immune system would attack her heart. Her doctors had to take her off antibiotics and remarkably, she rebounded.

“It was quite possibly the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, which is saying something because I’ve had life-threatening experiences multiple times,” Seely told Team USA.

After four months in the hospital, Seely finally stabilized and began to rebound.

Another key turning point came when she was able to get her COVID-19 vaccines. She was thrilled to receive her first dose in Texas and her second in Colorado.

Now, she’s in the homestretch of her training for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. After a yearlong delay, the Games are slated to run from Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. (The Olympic Games start July 23 and continue through Aug. 8.)

Seely encourages everyone to live healthy lives and train for their goals, like she does.

UCHealth is partnering with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to promote healthy lifestyles and Olympic and Paralympic athletes like Seely.

Seely thinks this year’s Games could have a more profound effect than ever before.

“The Games always have been meaningful in bringing the world together through peace and sport. At this time, we could use nothing more than coming together,” Seely said.

She hopes this year’s Games will serve as a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Hopefully, they will go off as safely as we expect. Hopefully, we can celebrate the perseverance of the athletes and the world,” Seely said.

It’s rare that every single country and person around the world has had to face the same challenge: a global pandemic.

“Hopefully this will bring everybody together and serve as a start to the end,” Seely said.

Learn from a Paralympian: Set a goal. Be proactive. Create a plan.

For Allysa Seely, staying committed to a routine has helped her rebound after her latest health challenges.

Her advice for athletes and regular folks who want to get fit is to set goals, be proactive and have a plan.

For instance, Seely has a mantra that she repeats to herself: “This is what gold is made of.”

If she’s struggling in the middle of a workout and feels like giving up, she reminds herself of her very specific goal.

“I tell myself that the work I’m putting in now — this pain and suffering — is what is going to help me accomplish my dreams.”

Some days, motivation alone is not enough.

That’s when she also taps her other guiding principles: “discipline and dedication.”

“There are definitely some very hard days and days when it would have been so much easier to give up and give in,” Seely said. “Motivation is naturally going to wax and wane.”

While the desire to win gold in Tokyo propels her, some days that goal alone doesn’t do the trick.

That’s when Seely leans on her team: from coaches, to physical therapists to a sports psychologist, teammates, friends and family.

“I’m so much more than just an athlete. Having that support system has been huge over the past 18 months,” Seely said.

Routines are key to Allysa Seely’s success

To stay on track, Allysa Seely sticks to the same training regimen day in and day out.

Regardless of holidays, travel schedules or even pandemics, she goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day.

Seely gets up at about 5:30 or 6 a.m. and takes her two dogs out for a walk or to play with balls.  Her older dog is an 11-year-old chocolate lab named Bentley. Her service dog is a 6-year-old golden retriever named Mowgli,

Seely’s first workout is a 90-minute swim followed by a bike ride or run that can last anywhere from one to three hours.

One of the reasons Seely loves triathlon is the variety. She fell in love with running back in second grade, then ran throughout high school and early in college. When she started to get bored with running, she discovered the joys of cycling and swimming too.

“I have always been active and athletic. I grew up dancing, running, playing soccer, doing gymnastics and karate,” Seely said.

Allysa Seely poses on a cobblestone street.
Being a Paralympian has given Seely a voice as she wins competition after competition around the world. Goals and perseverance are key. Photo courtesy of Allysa Seely.

These days, if she’s struggling in one of her sports, she can always shift and train harder in one of the other two.

“Every day, you’re not going to feel one. But, you’re going to feel another,” Seely said.

The toughest of her three sports is probably the cycling.

“I have a love-hate relationship with the bike,” Seely said.

Along with embracing variety, Seely is a proponent of napping. She works in a rest every day if she can.

“Training is so important, but so is recovery,” Seely said.

In the afternoon, Seely does another run or ride, then does strength conditioning and physical or massage therapy.

During downtime, she loves doing crafts, baking, hanging out with the dogs and tending to her garden, a new passion that she discovered during the pandemic.

Seely also crochets stuffed animals, which she donates to children who are coping with long-term illnesses as well as groups that support foster children.

“I want them to have something of their own that will comfort them no matter where they are,” Seely said.

She also takes commissions to make custom creations to support her training.

In the evenings, Seely tends to her social media channels and handles phone calls. She begins to wind down at 8:30 p.m. and heads to bed early.

Seely’s chief advice for children and younger athletes is to surround themselves with supportive people and to be fearless.

“Experience everything you can. Don’t specialize or focus on one sport too soon,” Seely said. “Playing different sports teaches you different things.”

As she looks ahead to Tokyo, Seely is incredibly grateful to her doctors, coaches and supporters. She’s equally thankful to those who have tended to people with COVID-19 and to researchers.

“I’m very thankful to all the health care providers and scientists who have worked tirelessly to get a vaccine so we can end this pandemic,” Seely said.

“COVID-19 has been very challenging. Early on, my doctors told me that I would be at very high risk if I got the virus. That meant spending a lot of time isolated by myself at home,” Seely said. “During any hardship, you learn who in your circle is going to stick around.”

Now that she’s fully vaccinated, Seely continues to be careful to protect herself along with others who have compromised immune systems.

She can’t wait to keep representing Team USA and speaking openly about her health challenges and her journey to Tokyo.

“It’s incredible to be given the opportunity to represent my country,” Seely said. “It has given me a voice to speak out and encourage others to fight for their dreams and also to keep focusing on health and physical and mental wellness.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.