Josh Cassidy: Paralympian and Neuroblastoma Warrior
Success does not happen overnight; however, it certainly did not take Josh Cassidy long to become Canada’s top-ranked athlete in wheelchair racing. In the last four years, Josh has been ranked number one in Canada, and ranks in the top five overall in the world for all of his events. Josh has only been racing for 9 years. In 2010 alone, Josh won the bronze medal for the 1,500m race in the Commonwealth Games in India, won the London Marathon, won two other marathons in Ottawa, won the Peachtree 10km in Atlanta, set multiple Canadian wheelchair racing records, and had numerous other accomplishments.
Josh was born in Ottawa in 1984, the first child in a family of ten children. His family lived in several places across Canada, and settled in a small town in Ontario called Port Elgin, on the shores of Lake Huron, when Josh was 11 years old. When Josh was born, a problem was noticed with the sensitivity of his one foot, which ultimately went limp. The family Doctor originally diagnosed his condition as spina bifida; however, his symptoms began to change rapidly and paralysis climbed up his body. A second opinion revealed a different diagnosis – neuroblastoma. Josh was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was just three weeks old, but the delay in identifying the disease gave it enough time to move from his abdomen to his spinal cord. The prognosis was terrible, and the expectation was that Josh would not survive.
On December 6, 1984, Josh had surgery to remove the tumour from his abdomen and spine. The Surgical team believed that they had removed the entire tumour so chemotherapy was put on hold. However, after a few months, the tumour reappeared. Josh went through almost 7 months of chemotherapy (cyclophosphamide and adriamycin/doxorubicin) and the neuroblastoma responded well to the treatment. At the end of the chemotherapy, there was a small mass still showing on the scans and the decision was made to go in and surgically remove the remaining tumour. His second surgery was on the one-year anniversary of his first procedure; however, when the surgeons went in to remove the residual tumour, they could not find it. The cancer was gone.
Since then, Josh has had other surgeries – a couple of surgeries on his hips to put in pins, and another procedure to release the tendons in his feet since they were pointed inwards. Incredibly, Josh has partial movement in his lower body. He can stand with the aid of crutches and has partial feeling in his legs. He describes the feeling that he does have as “delayed”. For example, he does not immediately feel changes in temperature or pain. It often takes time to reveal itself and when it finally does, it is a rush of pain as if the nerves over-react once they finally realized that there is an external stressor.
Josh was always active as a child but often wasn’t allowed to participate in extracurricular sports in school because his wheelchair was seen as a possible hazard. His desire to be involved led him to wheelchair racing and he entered his first races using a regular wheelchair, but his performance progressed quickly and he rented a proper racing chair later on. One fortuitous evening late in 2000, Josh happened to be in the same restaurant as a Paralympic coach and he asked Josh if he would like to formally try wheelchair racing. He began training 2-3 times a week, by 2003 he was training 5-6 days a week, working his way up to 2 times a day 6 days a week since 2008. On average, he is in the gym 2-3 times a week and training in the chair 9 times a week, but this can easily increase when he is preparing for a particular event. When he is training in his chair, this takes place on the track and the road. Josh’s physical training is similar to what is done by able-bodied track, speed skating, and rowing athletes. His fitness testing level is on par with a Tour de France cyclist. Wheelchair racing is best compared to speed-skating or rowing in terms of its biomechanics. It is a power endurance sport, and not a cardiovascular-based sport such as running. Wheelchair racing is about strength and force.
Josh’s racing chair is fully custom-made and engineered by a company in England. Everything about the wheelchair is fitted to Josh’s measurements: how high up he sits, how tall he is, the length of his arms, his weight and overall size, the length from his knees to his rear, the height of his seat, and many other aspects that play a role in making the chair a natural extension of Josh. When a new chair is made, Josh must fly over to England, have the chair fitted over a series of meetings, and the chair is then tuned to his specific requirements. A millimetre of change in a racing chair can take weeks to get used to at his elite level of performance. His muscle memory is so in tune with how the chair works that any change means Josh must rewrite his motor memory on how the chair works. He must have complete comfort when he is in the racing chair – the top racers all finish within seconds of one another. Any distraction during a race, and especially at the finish line, is unwelcome.
Josh needs to replace his racing chair about once every year, which is no small feat considering each chair costs about $6,500, not including the cost to fly to England to be fitted (each chair is roughly $9,000 with all expenses). He says it is a good motivation to stay safe and not crash. Crashes in any professional sporting event are scary, and wheelchair racing is no exception. Josh has been in a couple of crashes and was also hit by a car when he was training on the lakeshore bike path in Toronto one year. Luckily, he has not been seriously hurt but his wheelchairs have certainly suffered significant damage.
The psychology around wheelchair racing is no different than any other Olympic-level sport. Josh has to deal with injury, equipment failure, poor race administration, sickness, and many other challenges. He says that “the toughest part is getting mentally through stuff like that” and keeping his focus so that the challenges of bad races and experiences don’t get to him. “You have to adjust, reset, and look forward. Your head can get the better of you.” Josh uses a number of strategies to maintain focus, but says that “it is easier said than done. It is a lot about visualization and confidence. It took me a while to realize that believing in yourself before a race is huge. That works hand in hand with what you are doing in preparation. It is easier to believe that you can win a race if you know that you are properly prepared. You do the preparation, it builds confidence because you know that you have a better chance, and then they feed off of each other.”
A strong mental focus is especially important during the final push to the finish line. “When you have a guy who is starting to overtake you, and you are in the final sprint, and you are both neck-in-neck, you can’t have a single pinch of doubt cross your mind. That is so hard to control. How do you block something out without thinking about it?” Josh works very hard at removing any negative thinking from his mind in order to maintain his focus. “It takes some mental training to focus on yourself and go into that final sprint thinking, I got this not matter what is happening around me.” You have to believe that you will win, no matter what his happening around you. “It is that little pinch of confidence which can make the difference.” You can’t go into a situation thinking ‘maybe I can do this’. You have to go into the situation completely believing that you will triumph.
There should be no question that wheelchair racing is an elite sport. There are only fractions of a second separating the top racers, world records are constantly being advanced, and the level of competition clearly illustrates that wheelchair athletes are reaching the top of human capacity. However, there are still misconceptions about Paralympic sport. There is a discontinuity between the Olympics and Paralympics – it is not provided the same media coverage or the same financial support. This is frustrating for Josh but he feels that things are shifting. Educational campaigns and better public awareness are starting to change the landscape of understanding around Paralympic sport.
There are lasting effects from Josh’s neuroblastoma. When he becomes sick with a cold or flu, he experiences intense pain in his back, sides, abdominal muscles, knees, feet, and toes. He knows when he is getting sick as the pain comes on first throughout his body. Traditional over-the-counter medications do not help with the pain and the only thing that really works for him is applying heat to the affected areas. The pain often starts at night, with the first two days of pain being the most intense, and then typically tapering off by the third or fourth day. Josh’s attitude to this? “It is rough but things could be worse.”
Josh’s next major competition is the World Championships in 2011, and then the London Olympics in 2012. His goal for London? Gold, of course.
Read more about Josh Cassidy on his website: http://www.joshcassidy.com. Josh is currently looking for a sponsor to be a part of his success and help with the financial cost of racing.
- Bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games (Delhi).
- Won the Virgin London Marathon (time 1:35:21).
- Won the National Marathon Championships in Ottawa.
- Won the Peachtree 10km in Atlanta (45 seconds better than his time in 2009).
- 4th place in the 10,000m at the Swiss Track Championships. Set a new Canadian record for the 1500m. Placed 5th in the 800m.
- Won the ING Ottawa Marathon.
- In Canada, ranked 1st in 4 of 5 events, and 2nd in the 5th event.
- World rankings: 6th in 800m, 4th in 1500m, 3rd in 5000m, 2nd in 10kms and 11th in marathon.
- Gold medalist, Canadian Marathon Championships.
- Gold medalist, Canadian Track and Field Championships (800m and 5000m).
- 2nd place at the Peachtree 10km in Atlanta.
- Gold medalist in all three events at National Championships, 800m, 1500m, and 5000m.
- Ranked 3rd and 4th internationally in the 1500m and 5000m at the Paralympic Games (Beijing). Finished with the 4th fastest time ever recorded in the Paralympics Games history in the 5000m. First games attended.
- Winner of the Tunnel 2k event in Newcastle, England.
- Winner of the BUPA Great North Run half-marathon in Newcastle, England.
- Gold medalist, 10km National Championships.
- Male Wheelchair athlete of the Year (OWSA).
- Inducted into the Saugeen Shores Hall of Fame.
Thank you to Josh’s Mom, Mrs. Cassidy, for her help in clarifying Josh’s treatment and fight against neuroblastoma. Clearly an incredible woman.
Neuroblastoma Canada was pleased to be able to interview Josh in 2010 in Guelph, Ontario.