Josie Fouts is an aspiring Paralympic cyclist whose short film, 'Go Josie,' came out last week. The film focuses on a pivotal point in Josie's life: when she started working with her physical difference by customizing her bike and training for the Paralympics, rather than ignoring it like she has for most of her life.
Josie is not only a road cyclist, but is also a mountain biker who is advocating for para-MTB in the Paralympics, and believes the first step to making it happen is making people believe it's a possibility. I caught up with her to learn more about her story.
Could you start just by telling me who you are and what you do?
My name is Josie Fouts and I am training for the Tokyo Paralympics on the bike. But off the bike, I consider myself a full time hustler: I do whatever I can to keep supporting my bike adventures and my training.
How did you start biking and then how did you get into racing and training for the Paralympics?
It all started with my partner Taylor, who has been racing for 10 years. His story goes back further to his uncle and his dad who raced competitively, so Taylor has a lot of experience all together. Really I was drawn toward him because he was super healthy. I knew the way that I worked -- I thought this was just me at first, but it turns out to be for everyone -- the people that I surround myself with are exactly who I'll become. So for me, being a metabolic scientist learning about optimal health, I was like, "I’m going to hang around with a cycling guy who's super healthy and maybe some of that will rub off on me." Five years later, here I am: It worked!
He started helping me first be faster on my 14-mile commute to work: I was on an eighties beach cruiser, I didn’t adjust the saddle height, I didn't do anything. I was just like, “It's a bike, it works, I'm going to ride it.” I was wearing a four-season weather snowboarding helmet too. Making me faster started off with a helmet. And then I got clipless pedals and shoes. And then we upgraded the beach cruiser to a nice hybrid. That’s how I started getting a little bit faster on the bike.
My first race was a local circuit race, the Barrio Logan Grand Prix. The women's team director putting on the race was looking for any woman who rode a bike. She was like, "I'll pay for your race entry. All you have to do is keep doing the same thing you do anyways, but in a controlled environment." And I realized, "There's no barriers now for me to enter this race. I'm going to be there supporting Taylor anyways.” I can say I ride a bike and use it for commuting, or I can connect with Taylor and with this community on a different level and experience what they experience racing. And I decided to go with the latter because I wanted to feel what they felt.
I didn't get racing at all, so experiencing that was super powerful. In hindsight, it was a pivotal moment for me. I'm so glad that I chose to connect with Taylor and with the cycling community rather than just be out there on my own. I just started surrounding myself with healthy, happy people in hopes that I would become healthier and happier. And it worked.
Did you have an adaptive handlebar setup on your bike at that point?
Oh, no, definitely not.
That came later with the US team?
Even past that; just right now I'm starting to use a prosthetic, something to actually help me literally get a grip on my bars. Before, I would just rest my arm on the tops and then put my hand in the drops to kind of even my shoulders out and I was like, “Close enough, that's good.”
So you were using all back brake then?
I started off using one brake. Then a local bike shop helped me get a cable splitter so I could pull one lever to engage both brakes.
Oh that’s super cool.
But it comes at a cost and the cost was, I had to pull twice as hard to get the same amount of braking power for just one brake. Also, I couldn't regulate them. But I was on the road mostly, so it didn't really matter. We set it up so the front brake would touch first if I half pulled on it, and then if I fully pulled, the back brake engaged as well.
Do you have two shifters on that side then too?
I first started off with downtube shifters, which was an interesting choice for me, but now I've upgraded to Shimano Di2. The full Synchro shifts the front derailleur for me and I literally don't think about it or do anything. I really do believe that technology has evolved the sport. I think that's a big component of getting more para-athletes onto bicycles.
Do you ride mostly with able-bodied people or para-athletes or a combination?
I started off just riding with able-bodied people because for the first 27 years of my life, I was like, “I'm normal. I'm able-bodied. I can just do what everybody else does.” But at the same time, I was hiding the fact that I'm missing my hand. My favorite moments were when somebody who I already met all of a sudden was like, "I had no idea that you only had one hand!" Those were the moments that I thrived on. It felt really good because they're treating me like a normal person rather than feeling sorry for me.
But at the same time, giving myself this skewed vision of who I actually am only got me so far and it wasn't very balanced. I realize now, having the prosthetic, this shoulder is literally scrunched in because I'm hiding my arm so much, and it's super weak. Now I have to extend my arm out to gain strength and mobility, so I'm feeling more balanced. It's also kind of funny because how I carry myself physically is connected with how I talk about myself. Now that I'm talking about being an amputee going for para-cycling in the Paralympics, I realize, “I have to show it off more and I got to talk about it more.”
How do you feel the community as a whole treats you? It seems you're balancing definitely being one of the cyclists in the community, but also having a difference that does affect how you ride.
The cycling community was the first community who told me ‘yes,’ without any exceptions. I would say wild things like, “I'm going to go to the Paralympics even though I’ve never raced a bike” And everybody would just encourage me, “yes!” Before, with academics, with other sports and just growing up, I always heard, “You can, but that you gotta work way harder than everybody else.” I was always the exception, which made me feel I wasn't actually a part of a community. So now, with the support of the cycling community, everyone is like, “Yes, period, no exceptions. You can do it. And this is how we're going to get you there.” It feels great! And it feels weird because I'm not used to it, but I'm growing to love this feeling.
What's it been to work with sponsors?
I would describe the same kind of sensations: nothing but support! I believe, in a bigger sense, our culture is going through this metamorphosis where we're now accepting that different is good. I really do feel the bicycle industry is made up of leaders right now. Swiftwick, PEARL iZUMi, Shimano, Lazer -- they have all said yes to filming Go Josie. I never got a no. They are giving me the same opportunities as professional able-bodied cyclists, which in the end is above equality, it's equity.
I feel really good because I understand as a sport in general, so then as an industry, cycling isn't super popular in the United States -- not like Europe. At the same time, it seems as though the people who have less give more. Even before Corona -- or BC -- the bicycle industry was not as prosperous as football or even video gaming. Professional video gamers make so much more money than American professional cyclists.
That’s so wild.
It’s a super interesting perspective. When I look at the bigger picture, I believe that the bicycle industry are the leaders for inclusion and getting more people out there on bikes. They truly just want more people on bikes. They don't care if you look the part or if what they have suits you. That progresses and evolves the sport. The more people on bikes, the better for everyone. I feel super grateful for all the sponsors. I don't come from an athletic background, I don't have any special athletic genetics and I haven't been in the sport for very long, yet the amount of support that I've had on a personal level, a community level and a sponsorship level is amazing. It does feel like a dream.
How long have you been riding?
That's a quick rise to the top.
Yeah, for sure. Like I said, I give a lot of credit to the people in my life and the people who have supported me to help me get here, because cycling is definitely an equipment-driven sport. More so than running or soccer; the equipment really matters. Without having support at local bike shops, without having Taylor being a coach and his knowledge, there would be many more barriers that would have stopped me from getting to where I am now.
How can companies riding communities increase inclusivity and equity in the sport?
That's a great question. I think we're on the right track, and what we need to do is just keep telling stories.
As the saying goes, seeing is believing. For example, when I'm in a para-cycling event, and I see somebody with no hands or one leg or no legs or one hand and one leg just go out there and be their best self on a bicycle, it makes me feel empowered! I know that that's the same feeling for an able-bodied cyclist watching me ride my bike. It's all about sharing these stories so we all -- para-athlete or able-bodied, a commuter or a racer, or someone in between -- can reach our full potential. It's all about empowering ourselves and reaching our full potential together, not alone, which is a huge part of cycling -- working together.
Continuing to tell stories like mine is important, and there are so many other para-athletes out there that we can highlight as well. For one thing it’s visually really interesting to watch, and at the same time, redefines what we conceive as able. For example, for someone like me who has two legs, it's hard for me to imagine how a person with one leg would ride a bicycle. But then I watch Leo Rodgers shred and I experience being next to him, I'm like, “Well now that he showed me, it does make sense. I could do that.” And then when I do technique drills, like one leg drills I think, “If Leo can do it, I can do it.”
I think that's the piece that we're missing for para mountain biking. It's not a discipline in the Paralympics. I don't know why, but I'm guessing it is because nobody can visualize how the sport is going to look. Then the para-athletes don't see themselves being able to ride a mountain bicycle, so then there's low attendance for para categories and so on: it's a cycle. To turn that cycle from a negative standpoint with excluding para mountain biking at the top level into inclusive, we just have to start showing everybody how to do it. We’re already out there riding on dirt and adapting with whatever the road or life throws at us. We're the best at it.
How does it compare being at an event with a lot of adaptive found bikers versus being the only one?
I'm very used to being the only adaptive rider because I tried to be “normal” my whole life. It helped me become super mentally strong. I could see what other people were doing and I wanted to be there at their level so I pushed until I was. Riding with able-bodied cyclists has definitely helped me push my limits and get over mental barriers.
But then riding with para-athletes, it turns on the emotional part. I feel so much when I'm with them because I don't know what people are capable of. And that just makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m truly capable of, like I haven't reached my full potential. The human body is so amazing.
Think about how we think about space: there’s an infinite number of possibilities within this infinite amount of space. It makes sense. But what about an infinite number of possibilities in a finite amount of space? That’s the human body the way I see it and that's why I'm so motivated to keep pushing my limits. And for me to push my limits, I have to be around more para-cyclists. I have to hear their stories. I have to see them ride bikes and watch them get over a crazy steep, loose gravelly hill, however they're going to do it. It doesn't have to look good or there's no right or wrong line to take. They're just going to do it.
How do you feel skills from biking translate into everyday life?
It's so obvious to me. From a big picture, riding a bike, especially on the road, is close to dying every day because a car cuts me off, or doesn't see me because they're distracted like everybody else. Then you make it out alive and get to where you're going and you're just happy to be there. It really brings more joy for the little things in life, and I can let go of things that would have usually bugged me before. I'm just happy to be alive. I'm happy to have made it home in one piece. That’s the big lesson.
Then riding on trails really teaches me how to overcome obstacles physically and mentally. Like I said, it's not about taking the best line when you're out there on the dirt or loose gravel. It's just about staying upright, it's just about getting through life. You can still hit a rock as long as you stay up. You’ll hit rocks and make mistakes in life but they don’t matter as long as you keep moving forward. And maybe the person behind you missed the rock you hit, but hits a different one. It's like, we're all kind of moving in the same direction, but we're taking different lines. And that's exactly how life in a bigger sense is: We're all here trying to do the same thing, survive, but we are taking different lines, overcoming obstacles at different times. We all see obstacles differently, and we're going to have strengths in different areas.
Part of the beauty of cycling is that you can't do it alone. If you go out alone, you learn a lot about yourself, but really working together is one of the biggest things I'm learning about cycling. I want to do everything alone and I want to do it by myself. But if I do it that way, I'm not going to go anywhere, at least not anytime soon. There are so many more things that I don't know than I know, so I need perspective. I need people who think differently, who approach problems differently. I need to accept what they have to offer. I also think that's one of the biggest social issues that we are overcoming right now as a culture, which is so awesome. I'm super excited for what the future holds for everybody after the Black Lives Matter movement and the Paralympic movement. Just letting people be themselves.
What changes do you kind of hope to see in the bike community?
I really want to see more inclusion and more bikes. Especially more kids on bikes. I think, especially with what's going on right now, where for example, classes are online, you're already struggling to be engaged. But now you're looking at this flat screen that is going to be the same distance away from your eyes all the time. And then it also kind of blinds you at the same time if you have the contrast all the way up. Versus being outside, when you have all these different dimensions, all these different shades of colors. And you're constantly adjusting, what's in front of me, what's ahead of me? We become our best selves by challenging ourselves.
There's this proverb that says calm waters don't make a skilled sailor. I believe the same for cycling, which is why I think para-cycling can include some dirt, because honestly, being on a straightforward line, life isn't like that. There's no life analogy crossing over there.
If para mountain biking makes it into the Olympics, would you race that instead of road and track?
Oh yeah, for sure. Definitely. I also feel I love breaking taboos and I've noticed in cycling, there's this one taboo where if you put on a race, you can't win it. But I think this is the exception where I can break that taboo, but also create an avenue for more athletes as well, and more inclusion.
Because you are advocating for para-MTB biking to be included in the Paralympics, right?
Yeah, for sure, but obviously big ships move slowly. And like I said, step number one is just seeing it to believe it. Step number two is going to be helping those people who believe in themselves to get the bikes and get the adaptations. Then the more people out there, the more para-athletes out there, the more attraction from able-bodied and more para-athletes to ride more bikes. It will just build momentum naturally.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from cycling is how you build yourself from the inside out. How you feel is the most important metric on a bike, your RPE [rating of perceived exertion].
These are the metrics we should be focusing on. We should be focusing on like, how does that feel? Which sounds really kind of cheesy, but it's super important. It's all about feeling empowered and feeling capable and feeling you have more potential than what you know, not what the heart rate monitor says. That’s how you break your limits.
Can you tell me a bit more about your efforts to get para-MTB into the Paralympics?
Interestingly, in January of this year, the day before filming Go Josie, my garage was broken into and my adaptive mountain bike was stolen. So step one is first get a mountain bike. And not just any mountain bike, a bike that fits me, a 5’2’’ rider that has an upper extremity amputation. To my knowledge, this doesn’t currently exist, but neither does any mountain bike in the industry right now. Plus, the ones that are advertised for my height aren’t designed for the type of rider I am anyways and limits me more than pushes my limits (example: only has room for 1 bottle cage in the triangle). This first step will be huge, but so is starting anything; the activation energy to start moving a bike is always greater than keeping it rolling, so in the bigger picture, it’s not much more difficult to build a custom bike.
Step 2 is making goals to ride my custom mountain bike like setting Para-Fastest Known Times. Post Tokyo, I plan on setting the first Para-FKT on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. The way I see it, this will set the foundation for Para-MTB to be accepted as a Nationally-recognized sport; follow the lead of pro mountain bikers. At the same time, this will inspire other athletes of any ability to ride their bikes! Hopefully, a fraction of these people will increase the demand for adaptive and customizable bikes and parts in the industry. If all goes well, there will be more bikes, parts and opportunities for para cyclists to ride mountain bikes.
From there, the last step is easy: enjoy the ride. I’m only one person and thus, cannot predict the future -- I don’t know when Para-MTB will be accepted as a Paralympic sport -- nor can I be the only one competing at the top level. So there will be a point where my efforts are out of my hand, and the fate of Para-MTB will be in the hands of the bicycle community and industry. At that point, all I can do is know that I did my best to get as many people on bikes, and keep enjoying riding my mountain bike.
Why is it so important for you to be an advocate for para-MTB?
Advocating for para-MTBing is important for me because I see it as how I can give back to the sport. Cycling has taught me so much about myself. Lesson one was that I am drawn to the roads less traveled: I’d rather take the long way to a destination instead of the most direct or popular, especially if it has a hard climb and great view from the top. This is a great mindset for long training rides with friends because all I have to do is keep riding my bike, point out the best views, and I’m inspiring everyone to keep pedaling! However, this mindset gets me into sticky situations when I’m riding alone in new places: an easy 2-hour ride turns into an all-day battle for survival.
During one of my all-day battles for survival, I realized if I suppress this truth of myself, I’m not being true to myself. And instead of viewing this as a negative consequence of my past, I see it as this superpower to discover possibilities that are unseen and unimaginable by the common person! At that point, I had a choice of how to harness my superpower: either use it selfishly for more self destruction or use it for the greater good and build something bigger than myself. Advocating for Para-MTB is how I turn my ‘traumas’ from an uncontrollable past into a bigger, brighter and more bicycle-friendly future!
What are your goals for racing?
My goals are just to beat myself. The way I see it, I'm super new to racing compared to my friends who have been racing for 10 years. I've taken a mini mental poll and I've asked them, "how long did it take you to figure out what type of rider you are?" They say four years. I'm like, "Okay, well, right now I just have to keep learning how to ride a bicycle.” And it turns out, like riding a bicycle, everything is in cycles. So it's like, the first year I thought I knew how to ride a bike, but then something else clicked. I got a lighter bike. And I was like, "Okay. So it kind of feels different." And then Coronavirus happened and everything got postponed. And then I got a mountain bike and I was like, "I was not riding the other bike nearly as hard as I actually could."
Mountain biking sparked a new cycle of learning how to ride a new bike, and now I have this prosthetic. Now I have to learn again how to ride a bike. Essentially, when I go to these races, the results are secondary and the process and the progress is primary. That's what it's all about. It's about me comparing myself to me and nobody else. I think everything else will fall into place. That's the way I view racing, otherwise I get super anxious.
For sure. I look at racing as a measurable type of self-improvement.
Yeah, for sure. As long as I'm learning something about either riding my bike, but usually I'm learning something new about myself, then it's not a bad day on the bike, no matter what the numbers say, no matter what the results are. It's still a good day on the bike.
What are you doing to prepare for the Paralympics?
I'm going to do what the research says to become not just the best athlete, but to become as human as humanly possible, to reach my full potential. In my opinion, it’s going out in nature. I won't say the way for everybody, but for me it’s bike backing, camping, to be outside, to be in the natural elements and altitude training. I think that's the best way for me to win some medals.
The better I am at being uncomfortable, then the more comfortable I'll become in Tokyo. I'm sure you understand this or have heard of this or even experienced it: Athletes typically train at home and dial in everything -- their food and sleep. They get used to the same breakfast all the time, and their body's really good at digesting it. And then they have their sleep routine and they can fall asleep instantly to recover. But then, when they go to a new environment with different foods, the body is basically shocked because of everything it's not adapted to, and then performance suffers. My theory, which is kind of the way I've lived my whole life, is if I can adapt to the hardest way possible first, then come race day, it will be relatively easier.
It makes sense. It will be great to see how the Paralympics go for you. That’s so exciting.
Thank you. And no matter what, let's say worst case, they get postponed again, or I don't make it. I just had a lot of fun being on my bike outside, and that's really what I want to do at the end of the day. There's no losing for me.
How do you incorporate mountain biking into the rest of your cycling life?
Instead of waiting for the right time to ride my mountain bike, I make the time. For example, when I look at a training block meant for preparing me for a road race and I see there isn’t any specific time on my mountain bike, I make it happen anyways. It happens naturally for me: first a friend will want to ride with me and really, it’s my friends that got me into mountain biking, so our plans always gravitate towards riding trails. Then I adapt my training to my lifestyle: swap out a long endurance day on the road bike for a long mountain bike session.
How do you feel about the film coming out?
It's kind of nerve wracking and exciting at the same time, but so is a steep descent or the first race after the off season, right? I'm mostly excited because this is just the beginning of more para-athletes getting more opportunities to tell their stories.
Is there anything that you feel we should talk about that we haven't touched on?
Good question. I'll just reiterate that to empower yourself and to empower the new community of cyclists out there who have bought out all the bikes, we just have to keep telling more para-athletes’ stories to help visualize it and to just be inclusive. It's amazing having so much support from big brands, especially in the cycling industry, because just by default, we know that once somebody paves the way or breaks the wind for you, all you have to do is follow in their draft. That’s what’s really going to build a better future for cycling, especially in the States.
Swiftwick, the performance sock brand working to empower adaptive athletes through partnership and innovative gear, has been a big supporter of the Go Josie film. Swiftwick feels strongly that brand ambassadors should not be restricted to only able-bodied athletes, and they intentionally sponsor adaptive athletes and feature them in their marketing materials. Through these endeavors, we hope to inspire and motivate the next generation; it is Swiftwick’s way of living and breathing their mission through all that they do -- empowering people to be their best selves through the pursuit of adventure.