Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Travis Gaertner takes on a brand new sport in one other push for Paralympic gold

Travis Gaertner is representing Team USA at the 2018 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Maniago, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Travis gaertner)

As a kid growing up in Canada, Travis Gaertner would push his wheelchair through mounds of snow as a training exercise. In Italy, Gaertner will be representing Team USA and pushing himself next week at the 2018 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships, with the hopes of making it to the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

An actuary by day, Gaertner, of Burien, Wash., is attempting to make his third Paralympic Games. He was a two-time gold medalist in basketball with Canada at the Sydney Games in 2000 and Athens in 2004. He’s also GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

“My father passed away when I was very young and my mother raised us as a single mother teaching piano,” said Gaertner, who now has three kids of his own. “She always empowered me with the belief that I could do anything, even though I was born without legs, and encouraged me to be independent.”

Gaertner said everybody thought he was crazy when he said he wanted to end up in the U.S. for school to achieve the best in both academics and athletics.

“After sending out thousands of letters for help, and applying for every scholarship I could, I ended up as the captain of the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team,” Gaertner said. He played for the Canadian National Wheelchair Basketball Team for six years and now, as a U.S. citizen, has turned his focus to handcycling.

“Ever since I can remember, I have focused on being an accomplished athlete,” he said. “I have so much more appreciation now for my mom, who somehow found a way to support me. And I wish there was some way to make this easier for other athletes in similar situations.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Travis Gaertner:

What do you do, and why do you do it? To keep the roof over our head, I am a full-time pension actuary at a top-rated firm. I help corporations price and manage the risk in their pension plans. I’ve always loved math and this job gives me the ability to geek out on math while getting in front of people and explaining how our models can help save money or manage risk.

I wrapped up my Paralympic wheelchair basketball career after the Athens 2004 Paralympics for team Canada, but to stay healthy and independent, I picked up handcycling. Handcycling is a great sport for those who are able-bodied and those with disabilities to improve their cardiovascular health, increase upper-body strength, compete, and ride with friends and family. While this started out more as a hobby, my competitive nature kicked in after winning the Portland Marathon in 2017 with a time of 1 hour 16 minutes. That’s when I set my sites on once again competing on the world stage with the ultimate goal of making the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team. I switched my application of the sport from a hobby to a world-class training routine and progressed through the path to international competition quickly. I went on to win the 2018 Los Angeles marathon, shaving over 7 minutes off my Portland time and beating my competition by just under 10 minutes. I then won the National Para-cycling Championships in Augusta, Ga., which landed me in Italy this week.

I am doing this now because 14 years ago I earned my last gold medal at the age of 24. To be able to go back at age 38 for a third attempt at a medal is an amazing opportunity to show people, especially my children, that age is just a number and that anything is possible, whether able-bodied or disabled.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? As an actuary — there are still a lot of legacy pension plans out there and thus a lot of work to do. Traditional plans are however less prevalent and America has a retirement problem — we are living longer, and have less funds set aside for retirement. Actuaries are working on that problem.

As a handcyclist — we don’t race in wheelchairs! On our bikes we crank speeds of 25 mph on straightaway. To get that fast, we can’t just be praised for getting on the bike and putting work in. We have to suffer like regular cyclists — it’s mathematical and the amount of work we put into our training is measurable. This makes us accountable to put in painful training sessions even when our bodies scream out “STOP — THIS IS TOO MUCH — THIS REALLY HURTS!”

Where do you find your inspiration? In what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did for us. That he loves me despite me, and sends unending love, guidance and strength in all areas of live.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?  As an actuary — my calculator. Everything comes down to the numbers and I need to be able to respond to questions and new ideas on the fly!

As a handcyclist — My SCIFIT upper body ergometer trainer. Prior to training for the Olympics I used it for general fitness almost every day. Now that I have made the jump to world class competition it serves me even better! I find it actually trains me better than my handcycle does and it holds me accountable with great data. The sessions I need to complete are very scientific with specific targeted efforts. The SCIFIT machine has a setting that forces me to keep going when every bone in my body is telling me to STOP NOW! On a regular bike, I can cheat and take momentary breaks but my trainer has an algorithm that forces my cadence up to maintain my efforts. This is a huge competitive advantage. It gives me all the data I need to hold myself accountable to be my best every day.

Travis Gaertner’s home office in Burien, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Travis Gaertner)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a home office and workout space in one! It allows me to work from home to save time on commuting to the office or a gym, allowing more time with my family. The flexibility it affords is essential. However, actuaries travel quite a bit, so my office is often my car and the airport and I get quite a few stairs while traveling (for example, I take the escalator just like everyone else as you can see in this video). My car is adapted with hand controls to allow me to drive anywhere.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) If I don’t get the exercise I need, I find that I’m just not as healthy, I don’t recover as fast from being sick, and it’s also critical to being independent my whole life. It’s important that you not put your health on the back burner, even if you travel a lot. At home, I have every piece of equipment that allows me to train, but most hotels or gyms aren’t equipped with upper body ergometers, which are critical for those with disabilities to get intense, structured, and scientific intervals. There is every reason under the sun for me to not exercise while on the road. But, if you are willing and able, you can find a way. I used to use an elliptical machine at hotels (try that without legs), but injured my back and landed in physical therapy for a year. I also used to sit on the hotel floor and pedal a traditional exercise bike while sitting on the floor with my hands, but that was pretty unsanitary. Now, while traveling, I work hard to find hotels near a gym with a SCIFIT upper body ergometer like the one I have at home. This can mean more time in an Uber car to make sure I find one. If one is not available, I bring my portable hand cycle from Excy so I can get an intense upper body workout anywhere. It’s compact, so I can take it anywhere, which eliminates all excuses.

Mac, Windows or Linux? As an actuary — Windows. It’s still a Microsoft world for number crunchers. All else — MAC. WHAT THE FLIP DO YOU MEAN “DRIVE NOT FOUND” — WHY DO I NEED A DRIVER TO PRINT THIS??????

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter — efficiency is key.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Support adaptive kid athletes, especially those without the financial means to gain access to the equipment and coaching to compete at the highest levels. This would include raising a few more million to buy a big piece of land with great roads for cycling.

I once waited in line for … Three days nonstop, no sleep, at a “hands-on-car-a-thon” to try and raise money for school.

Your role models: Jesus Christ and so many people in my life who I can learn from and be encouraged by.

Greatest game in history: Risk!

Best gadget ever: Wine bottle opener 🙂

First computer: I can’t remember that far back!

Current phone: iPhone 7.

Favorite app: I rely heavily on sports technology applications like Training Peaks, Garmin Connect, Strava, and Polar Beat.

Favorite cause: Care Net.

Most important technology of 2018: Our phones.

Most important technology of 2020: Phone turned everything?

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Love it! It makes you tick!!


Twitter: @tgaertne

LinkedIn: Travis Gaertner

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