An Athlete Rides On
Backcountry partners with the National Ability Center (NAC) around our shared mission of breaking down barriers to the outdoors. Based in Park City, Utah, the NAC empowers individuals of all abilities from across the globe through outdoor recreation. To support their work, we feature stories about adaptive athletes and serve as an outfitter of NAC athletes and guides.
Utah local Courtney Custer has been riding mountain bikes and enjoying adventures in her local Wasatch Mountains since she was a kid. When she sustained a spinal cord injury in an ATV accident, she immediately sought out ways to continue her outdoor-based lifestyle. Today, she’s an instructor at the National Ability Center (NAC) and competes in adaptive mountain biking. Read on for her take on trail advocacy, training, and the hand-cycling community.
Backcountry: What made the biggest difference in your recovery process?
Coutney Custer: When I was still in recovery from my injury, I knew I needed something to distract myself, lift my spirits, and focus on—other than my loss. So, I got a dog. I like to call her my post-paralysis puppy. It immediately helped me so much emotionally and physically—I focused on her and not me. She took the edge off all of the super dark days. Ari is now just over one year old and we can’t wait to turn her into a trail dog. She is the best camping partner and best cuddle bud.
We’re all about the trail dogs, too. In addition to Ari, what coping strategies helped you most?
My biggest coping strategy was distraction. If I constantly was focused on everything else and kept my mind busy, I was less likely to start the spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. The best distractions were physical therapy, fires with friends up the canyon, and playing games.
What were your favorite exercises during recovery?
The best exercise for me during the initial recovery time was anything to get me out pushing my chair. It helped build those pushing muscles, gave me freedom to push wherever, and go fast down hills.
“I also want to branch out and try even more adaptive sports and, most importantly, spread awareness about the abilities of adaptive athletes and how rad they are.”
We heard you recently started using a rad, adventure-focused chair. How has that changed what you can access?
I have a Grit Off-Road Freedom Chair that gives me the ability to get around across many more terrains. I grew up camping with my family and this chair lets me move around more independently in outdoor terrain. The most helpful feature on the chair is the big front wheel that can go over most terrain and prevents my chair from flipping forward when I hit a rock.
What do you love most about mountain biking?
The freedom it provides me. Nothing feels better than flying down a dirt trail high on adrenaline in nature.
Tell us about the bikes you use—any favorite features?
I’ve been riding the adaptive mountain handcycle called the Nuke. I prefer this bike because of how comfortable it makes the ride and how much I can throw my weight into turns and obstacles. There are two wheels in the front and one wheel in the back, and I sit in a recumbent position with my feet in front of me. The hand pedals are at my chest and the handlebars to the sides of those. My favorite feature is definitely the e-assist. Makes me go faster uphill.
How have your races been going in the Midweek Mountain Bike Series’ new adaptive class?
The mountain bike races I had the opportunity to compete in have been so incredible. I was a competitive mountain biker in high school and college, so to have the opportunity to cross a finish line again while pushing myself to my limits has been a blessing. The races went great and at the last race of the season, eight hand cyclists competed. Unfortunately, I didn’t do much personal training for the races this year. I rode the NAC’s handcycles whenever I could, but never did intentional “training” rides.
“I have never met more sendy and adrenaline-addicted people in my life [than hand cyclists]. They all know how to shred.”
What are some of your goals as an athlete heading into 2022?
I will be getting my own mountain bike handcycle sometime at the end of 2021, so going into 2022, I am going to be mountain biking as much as I can. My family is big into mountain biking as well and we are excited to get back out on the trails together and re-experience my favorite trails since before my injury. I plan to train and ride quite extensively for enjoyment and exercise.
Do you do any indoor or other training?
I just started back up at a Crossfit gym that I was a part of pre-injury. I plan to go there three times a week to continue building all of the muscles that I need to be independent and accomplish even more goals. I also want to branch out and try even more adaptive sports and, most importantly, spread awareness about the abilities of adaptive athletes and how rad they are.
What are the greatest challenges of competing as a hand cyclist in events not designed specifically for hand cyclists?
The greatest challenge is just that not all trails are the most usable for handcycles. We don’t need a super-wide or paved trail, but some trails are just too off-camber or have trees too close together for our bikes to fit through. Some trailheads even have rocks blocking the entrance. We find ways to make most trails work, but sometimes we just want to ride without all the added stresses and effort.
What has it been like to transition from riding to teaching lessons?
When I first graduated high school, I became a mountain bike coach for my high school team. I have always enjoyed teaching others how to ride a bike. Being able to share that freedom that I feel and the joy biking provides me is so amazing.
What are some of your favorite things about being an adaptive recreation instructor?
When [I’m coaching] another adaptive athlete that hasn’t mountain biked since their injury, and I get to see the joy in their eyes as they climb a mountain independently and ride down rocks and dirt as fast as they want to. It is the most freeing sport.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
Seeing the struggles some people have to go through every single day—it’s heartbreaking and inspiring. There are some incredibly strong people out there.
What’s your favorite thing about the hand-cycling community?
How brave and strong every individual is. I have never met more sendy and adrenaline-addicted people in my life. They all know how to shred. Talking to each person, they have such a rich story of their injury, recovery, and overcoming. I am able to connect with them about our different abilities and be inspired by their grit in life. I get so much wisdom and hope from every person and am inspired by how active they are and how they accomplish everything they want to. On top of all that, they are the most welcoming and inviting group of people. As soon as I show up to an event or race, we are all immediately best friends and know that we got each other’s backs.
“Being able to share that freedom that I feel and the joy biking provides me is so amazing.”
What’s your favorite thing in your gear closet?
My favorite thing in my gear closet is probably my camera that I am hoping to pursue a little more this coming year.
Anything else you want to highlight about adaptive sports?
One of my favorite parts about being a part of the spinal cord injury and adaptive sports community is helping to spread awareness and educate people on what adaptive sports are and how capable people with different abilities are. I love that I get to advocate for myself 100% of the time and always surpass what people expect me to be capable of. I love being an advocate for the whole community.