Shawn Morelli: From Army Major to Paralympic Gold Medalist

Shawn Morelli took time out to share with us her truly inspirational story. A major in the US Army, Shawn experienced an injury during service in Afghanistan that changed her life forever. Shawn turned to cycling to help her to heal physically and mentally, and now cycles competitively for her country.

If you ask my parents they will tell you that my desire to join the United States Army started when I was around ten. I felt that it would be a great way to follow in the footsteps of my great grandfather, grandfather and father, proudly carrying forward the legacy of service to my country. In 2007, I was deployed as an engineer officer on my third combat deployment to Afghanistan. I felt ready for it… but are you ever really ready for combat?  

On this deployment I was seriously injured and my life was forever changed. I was left with permanent injuries, blinding my left eye, damaging my neck and nerves, and brain trauma. I was struggling to heal, leaning on family and friends, when it was suggested I try cycling as a method of physical and mental therapy.

In 2010, I was exposed to competitive cycling at the 2010 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, and invited to my first para-cycling camp. My bike training was helping to strengthen my body, improving balance to counteract my visual limitations and physical imbalances.

I never thought I would have a career in sport, my life plan had me retiring from the US Army. Which I did – I was medically retired from the Army a couple of years later in 2012 due to the wounds I’d sustained in combat. When I look back on my life, obviously, the turning point is not something I was expecting. It took me a while to not only understand what happened to me and heal, but also to accept and even longer, to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

This was a very up and down time in my life, I struggled with alcohol which I used to deaden the pain, I was self-destructive and I attempted suicide. I wanted the mental and physical pain to end. It was not until I made a conscious decision while in the hospital recovering from that attempt that I was going to live, and live every day for all those who never came home. I made one simple goal ‘to be better today than I was yesterday’.

Cycling has become my path to healing both mentally and physically. I ride for those who can not ride. I was given a second chance at life. Cycling has taken me many places around the world, allowed me many opportunities to represent my country on the biggest of stages. I have earned many accolades; I am a two-time gold medalist in the Paralympic Games. I have competed in a number of World Championships over the last six years earning 16 medals, including 12 World Championship titles, 2 silver medals and 2 bronze medals.

I often get asked how my time in the Army has helped me in my cycling career. I typically respond with that it has helped me to keep things in perspective. It has taught me how to be full of adrenaline, keep my focus and do my job. When you have seen, done and been through some of the things I have, it is easy to just think to myself ‘I am just racing a bike’.

I feel pressure of competitions and the adrenaline that comes with that but I am able to put it into perspective. It is not nearly as much pressure as when you are working in a combat zone and are responsible for the 30 lives around – fathers, sons, moms, daughters, husbands, wives. That is pressure, that is stressful; this is just riding a bike.

I am thankful to my community, my hometown and the many organizations that not only helped me to get started on this new path, but also the programs and sponsors that continue to aide me on this journey.

Project Hero helped me to find my soul in cycling – they bring wounded, sick and injured veterans together building camaraderie and fellowship – they promote healing through cycling. This was one of the first places I was not afraid to be me. I had a local bike shop in Santa Fe Trails in Leavenworth, KS that invited me to participate in group rides. They worked closely with me, teaching me how to ride with my injuries and introducing me into the world of racing.

Project Echelon is another organization I have come to know and rely on. They are not only a professional cycling team, but they work with veterans to educate, equip and empower them through physical activity and self-discovery. They support veterans that have already found success in sport to achieve their next step and goals. Then they go one step further to provide veteran mentorship by connecting veterans with their elite racing team and sponsors to assist in attaining their physical goals and help them discover healing along the way.

I have also discovered Team PossAbilites. PossAbilities is a free community outreach program developed by the Loma Linda University Health whose goal is to provide resources and support to veterans and anyone with a permanent physical or intellectual disability. Their mission is to provide new direction and hope through physical, social, and spiritual activities by connecting our members with their peers and community.

The final sponsor to fall into my lap that has provided great support but also much needed equipment is Verve Cycling. They have given me the power to train and compete. Very literally, they provide my cranks and power meters for all of my bikes. We’ve been working together for a couple years now – without Bryan and the InfoCrank, my training would not be as far along.

I experience nerve damage that causes the right side of my body to fire very differently from the left. The InfoCrank power meter measures each leg independently to help my coach gain an accurate understanding of what’s going on. The information my coach gets is exactly what we need to take me to the next level.  

All of these organizations have assisted in getting me where I am today and without any one of them I would not have achieved what I have.

As my sports career progresses and I start to think about retirement, I consider the idea of teaching and sharing what I’ve learned. I’ve started public speaking about resilience and overcoming adversity. I want to continue to mentor kids and speak at schools. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time at my High School in Seagertown, Pennsylvania, attending sporting events and giving back to the school. I really enjoy mentoring new riders too, this gives me a lot of joy.

I used to coach soccer, I have not coached in few years but after Tokyo, I plan on taking my advanced certification and start coaching again. I found that with my training schedule, especially leading into the Games, I could not devote the required time to the kids. I believe if you are going to do something, you do it 100 per cent, and right now I am not able to that.

For now, I plan on taking this year one day at a time and staying in the present. I would be joking myself if I said I was not thinking of everything I need to do to get to Tokyo and a little of the pressure. In this run up, I don’t think I feel more pressure than I did going into Rio but it is different. In Rio, I came in as reigning world champion in both my target events. So, the pressure to perform on that bigger stage was on me all through the final preparation. Of course, I feel the pressure and want to defend my Paralympic results; this is when I fall back on my family, coaching and support staff to help me keep focus on my preparation and not so much on the results in the Games. Of course, I have to make it to the team going to the Games first.

I get asked a lot if I would go back to the day of my accident and change it but my answer is always no. The people I have met, the experience and the opportunities are not what I planned but it has been a great journey. And I am honored to have been able to go from wearing my flag on my shoulder to wearing it on my back.

Photo Credit: Casey Gibson

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