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The Globe and Mail

Wheelchair marathoner driven by dreams of gold

Training on city streets (such as Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard) and country roads, on highschool tracks and in the weight room, Josh Cassidy has used his hands to work himself into the best shape of his career.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Paralympian Josh Cassidy speeds along Toronto's busy Lake Shore Boulevard in his racing chair on an intense, long-distance training run in the roasting summer heat. Cars fly by or skirt round him, some even honk to cheer him on, but he maintains a straight-ahead focus.

Days of preparing for this summer's London Paralympic Games vary for the 27-year-old wheelchair racer, whose legs were paralyzed as a result of cancer of the spine and abdomen when he was an infant. Training twice a day, six days a week, he has calculated that in one year, he pushes his chair approximately the distance from one Canadian coast to the other.

With little research available on the science of his sport, Cassidy has gathered his own through experience. He has competed all over the world (including the Beijing Paralympics), won the 2012 Boston Marathon in record time, and swept his events at the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic trials. Training on city streets and country roads, on high-school tracks and in the weight room, Cassidy has worked himself into the best shape of his career and is ready to chase gold.

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The native of Ottawa and his coach have engineered a diverse training regimen that fits him better than ever in preparation for his four Paralympic events: the 800 metres, 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres and marathon. In addition to his pushes in the chair, he also swims and hits the weight room hard, everything with a specific purpose.

"People say I'm an overthinker," Cassidy said. "And this is a case where thinking things over a great deal is really working out for me."

Cassidy hones hand speed indoors using a stationary workout chair. He also trains on various school tracks between Toronto and Guelph, Ont., strategizing that each different surface challenges his body in unique ways. Gym teachers and high-school kids often stop to marvel at Cassidy's strength as the muscular racer flies around their tracks.

He trains on paths and roads, city and country, taking on hot asphalt and heart-pumping hills. Last winter, he trained in Australia in summer weather, pushing himself against another racer.

Much of his strength is maintained in the weight room, and although Cassidy has little use of his legs, he does most weightlifting out of his wheelchair, lying on the ground, propped on his knees or hanging from a chin-up bar while wearing a heavy weighted vest.

"I take him out of his chair completely, because the chair provides support, but I want him to support his own body," Wayne Burke, a strength and conditioning expert, said. "When he's in a heavy wind during a race, he has to fight it by using his obliques to keep him steady in his chair. We imitate some of the movement he'll experience."

Cassidy has gathered many tricks of the trade, such as massage to prevent repetitive-use arm injuries. One such technique is Graston therapy, which uses butterknife-like tools to work the muscle fibres in his forearms. He tweaks his equipment and sitting position. His $6,000 chair, which weighs 17 pounds, is customized to the millimetre. He tinkers with air pressure in his tires, which cost upward of $180 each (he once blew a dozen of them during one training week in Australia). He has meticulously crafted his racing gloves out of moulded plastic and black rubber, getting them just right to propel his chair.

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"He has travelled more in the last few years to compete, has made key relationships with the top guys he competes with, and puts countless hours into preparing his equipment," coach Amanda Fader said. "He is absolutely focused on being No. 1 and has shown that he's in the right frame of mind to win at these Games."

Cassidy researches the venues in which he'll compete. He has tested the London Paralympic marathon course, which he calls one of the most challenging in the world, with rough roads, no downhills to coast and lots of tight corners that scream for potential crashes.

"Going to a second Games, it's like I'm going back home," said Cassidy, who is the oldest of 10 children and who aims to have all of his family members in London with him. "I'm way more prepared, mentally, visually, physically. Everyone is gunning for first in prime shape for that race. I'm much more confident this time and I know I'm doing everything possible. There will be zero regrets."

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