Interview with Paralympic Coach Chris Palmquist
We would love to hear the story that led to you becoming a coach for the Paralympics! Did you grow up as an athlete? How did your personal fitness journey begin?
I really did not grow up as an athlete. I was a young girl in the 60s and 70s and there were not as many opportunities for girls. I spent most of my time in every possible musical group. I played piano and trombone and I sang in choirs. I did have a couple of glorious years in a synchronized swimming club - little known fact about me! I hated gym class. I tried track in junior high but middle of the pack at best. My only ribbon came from the three-legged race in the junior high field day competition. I certainly NEVER defined or described myself as an athlete.
I went to Cornell University – where for some reason, I decided to try to make the women’s rowing team. With no athletic experience, this became one of the biggest challenges of my life. And it changed my life. I eventually did make the team, and I rowed for all four years.
After graduation, I moved to Chicago and began racing all sorts of sports: marathon canoe, sprint kayak, cross country skiing, short-track speed-skating, bike racing and finally, triathlon. These sports are where I met my favorite friends and also where I met my husband, Jeff.
Did you compete in any Triathlons in the past?
My first triathlon in 1994 was a two-person relay bike, run, canoe triathlon in Minnesota, called Border to Border. It took four days and traversed the state diagonally for about 500 miles. I started doing swim, bike, run triathlons 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve probably raced about 30 triathlons, including 13 Ironman races.
What inspired you to become a coach?
I started coaching in 1993 when I was a middle school science and math teacher. I coached track, cheerleading and cross country at first. Eventually, I coached high school cross country. After I had my kids, I left teaching. I really missed working with people and eventually started coaching adults in my region for endurance sports like triathlon. I’ve been a full time, professional coach for 11 years.
When did you begin coaching the para-athletes?
I worked with some physically impaired athletes and triathletes in the winter, indoor cycling classes that I coached. Then, I volunteered to coach at a Challenged Athletes Foundation Camp with Team MPI in spring of 2014. That camp was where I discovered how much I love to partner with physically and visually impaired athletes. These athletes have endured big challenges and many have survived life threatening situations like bone cancer, brain tumors, road-side bombs and traumatic accidents. Yet, here they were, becoming triathletes. They shatter all the excuses the rest of us might come up with to avoid being and athlete. And their zest and appreciation for life is contagious.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a coach for Paralympic Athletes?
The “Road to Rio” was the term that the athletes, coaches and staff all used to describe the journey of identifying Team USA, qualifying for the Paralympics, training and then finally racing for our country in Rio. On this “road,” we all faced challenges every day. The athletes had to train, overcome injuries, find sponsors and sacrifice time with family and from careers to race at a world class level and succeed. The coaches had to be constant problem solvers, motivators, experts in training and compassionate motivators. We also gave our time and energy – spending many weeks away from our families to travel internationally, coach camps and go to Rio for the Paralympics.
How do you overcome these challenges?
Overcoming challenges is part of what makes coaching so endlessly fascinating. When the going gets tough, we simply keep our mission in mind. And that mission is ultimately to win medals for the USA. And the way to win the mission is to always put the athletes and the team first – to make decisions with their best interests in mind. We are a team and we win and lose as a team.
We believe that there is no such thing as one single definition of the word active. What does the term 'being active' mean to you?
Being active means movement to me. My favorite ways to be active are outside – moving under my own power by running, biking, cross country skiing, walking, etc. But any movement is being active. Our bodies and brains require movement.
Do you have any advice to people who may not know the benefits or might not have the motivation to live a more active / health-conscious lifestyle?
To a physically or visually impaired person, being able to be active is priceless. They appreciate it and they don’t make excuses to “get out” of something that they value so much. We all need to have that same appreciation for movement. If we are active, we will be happier. We will have less pain. We will stay stronger and healthier later into life. We will meet people. We will breathe fresh air. We will experience nature. Try to be as active as you can be for the best possible life.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Cheer for our para athletes! Donate, volunteer, spectate and support organizations that help physically and visually impaired kids, adults and veterans be active. It is life-changing. Contact me at [email protected]. Take a look at our website: www.teammpi.com and www.usaparatriathlon.org.