Two Legs Too Easy: Why Movement Is Medicine with World Champion Cyclist and Para-Cycling Pioneer Dr. Meg Fisher

The dawn has barely broken and early rays of summer sunshine splatter golden light across the yard while Meg Fisher throws a ball for her pup Pax. She knows she’ll be leaving him for a good chunk of the day while she gets out for a training ride and wants to make sure he gets some of his puppy energy out before she goes. Her laughter echoes under the trees and her stoke is palpable.  With the great state of Montana as a backyard, the number of trails and gravel roads at Meg’s disposal are enough to make anyone want to pack up and move west.

If you aren’t familiar with the name, Meg Fisher is a humble source of wisdom and inspiration on panels and workshops and when toeing the start lines of 100+ mile races.  She is pioneering the inclusion of para-cycling categories in gravel and mountain bike events across the country and around the world. At a compact, but mighty, 5’4” with a wild mane of wind-tangled curly auburn locks, hazel eyes, and a trademark floral bandana tied around her neck, Meg stands out in a crowd – her prosthetic leg is not her defining characteristic. It might be the Paralympic and World Championship gold medals she generously shares with her audiences or the nuggets of wisdom from miles and miles on the trails and roads that she’s pedaled, but there is something about this woman that commands attention and bountiful respect.

When I sat down to talk about where Meg’s at and where she’s heading the first thing we talked about were her various prosthetic feet that enable her to thrive on and off the bike. She says,  “I’m grateful and feel privileged to live in a country with access to high quality prostheses and I fully recognize my privilege of having multiple feet and know that not everyone is as lucky.” When I asked about her one-of-a-kind cycling foot she told me it was thanks to a buddy of hers.  “It wasn’t just luck that brought me my cycling foot. When my buddy Brian Williams saw my need, he knew he had the skills to make my situation better.  He crafted my biking leg with a lot of the same techniques he uses in his bike saddle fabrication business. My cycling leg is made from a carbon pylon with an added carbon foot piece where I have a SPD cleat bolted to the bottom so I can clip into my bike pedal.”

Her bike foot is the first thing on the list she makes the night before a race. Below it reads: sock, shoe, kit, water, juice, spare tube, helmet, sunglasses, snacks.  She ticks off the reminders filling her bag before she heads to her garage to clean her chain and check out her bike before loading up. While she swapped her pedals, pumped up her tires and put on a fresh battery I asked her why cycling and advocacy is important to her.  She paused a moment before responding, “I believe we are all more capable than we know.” Motioning towards her bike she continues,  “The bike is just one tool people can use to redefine their abilities. For someone like me, whose feet don’t work like everyone else’s, my bike is my ticket to freedom. Bikes are basically a wheelchair that harnesses the beauty of the wheel to carry us further and faster than we could go alone.”

After pulling up to a local race venue, Meg checks in saying “Hi”,  fist bumping and hugging a handful of folks along the way, and smiles all around.  Race number in hand she walks back to the car to affix it to her bike and go about her pre-race foot-swap ritual. She waits as long as possible to swap to her custom bike foot because it isn’t easy to walk on and she likes to stay atop her bike as much as possible to decrease wear on the carbon foot and the rest of her body as this leg was not made for walking. She pulls down the silicone sleeve to apply some lotion and readjust before pulling it back up, stepping down into the foot to achieve maximum suction and clips into her bike pedal ready to ride.

A blackboard in her kitchen lists the cycling events Meg is competing in this summer and most impressive about the list is that each has their own para-cycling categories this year.  Next up are: Rooted Vermont, Leadville 100 MTB + SBT GRVL (LeadBoat), The Last Best Ride and Rebecca’s Private Idaho Queen Stage Race. When I asked Meg what this means to her she shared, “I’m usually the only para-cyclist at these events or at least the only person using a prosthesis so it’s a big deal to be joined by other para-cyclists this year.  When I raced on the Paralympic Team, I raced against other people with physical impairments and relished the competition.  I’m not the fastest rider when I toe the line against able-bodied athletes. I’m usually in the middle of the pack and giving everything I have to make it to the finish line.  I love cheering people on during a race, like a mobile cheering squad, motivating others motivates me too.”

Meg demonstrated this at a local gravel race in Missoula in July when she saw Andrew Frank (Team California) turn around ready to DNF early in the race.  When I asked him what happened, he told me, “I was there hoping to win, but I ended up having some breathing issues and I got dropped so I turned around because I was down on myself and didn’t see the point in continuing. Meg yelled at me to ride with her and I reluctantly turned back around.” The next time they passed by my camera they were riding side by side and for the next forty miles Andrew said that Meg was the motivation to keep going.  He continued, “The conversation with Meg was meaningful and had depth, a needed shift from the usually banal conversations had on race day. Saturday, I made a friend and was reminded that the cycling community cares more about its people than their results.”

When I chatted with Andrew after the race and asked him what impact he thought Meg has made on the local gravel scene he told me, “The first thing I think of is how Meg is always at local races and events even though her presence and impact go far beyond Missoula, she takes the time to be involved in the Missoula cycling community and I have always admired her ability to be genuine, open, and vulnerable.”

If you spend even a day with her in her hometown of Missoula, MT this essence is immediately apparent.  She’s recognized everywhere from the grocery store to the coffee shop to her local bike trails. Each time she is stopped she takes time, flashes a smile and gives her full attention to neighbors and strangers in a way that is both impressive and admirable. Whether it is sharing physical therapy advice with fellow riders at  races, giving a kid a high five or encouraging a parent whose child is going through a life changing event there is nothing self-serving about the way Meg shows up for people.

On her bike, Meg waves at every car and cyclist that passes her, breathing hard with a wide smile across her face. She is proof that we are all capable of great things.  She shared, “if someone sees this article or hears me at an event and feels inspired to fill a need for someone else, whether that’s being a pilot for a tandem or supporting another para-athlete with race entries or creating a more affordable handcycle then it all has been worth it to me.”  She continued, “In the beginning, after someone gets hurt, the world feels so small and it’s all too easy to focus on all of the things a person can’t do. I want to help people realize that there is so much they still can do and that they belong in outdoor spaces regardless of the visible and invisible scars they’ve acquired along the way. After all, movement is medicine.”

Along the way, she is un-paving the way for para-cyclists and adaptive athletes in off-road spaces while ensuring everyone feels supported and welcomed.  Meg often cites a World Health Organization study that found 15% of the World’s population lives with a permanent physical impairment.  It makes sense that Meg has merged her prolific cycling experience with her expertise as a Doctor of Physical Therapy to speak passionately about equity and inclusion in sport.  With decades of experience and perspective since her accident, Meg sees how narrow it is to compare para athletes to able-bodied athletes. Both are equally worthy of opportunity and celebration.  She finished our interview with a sparkle in her eyes, “I’m so excited to see our sport grow, evolve and become the best version of itself.”