“Cycling has helped me accept my vision loss. I’m at peace with it now.”
Carla Shibley is pedaling hard. Seated at the back of the tandem bike she shares with teammate Meghan Brown, she pumps her legs relentlessly, trying to catch up to the pair of riders she knows must be just around the bend. It’s the 2019 Canadian National Road Race. She and Meghan have a shot of winning—if they make up some ground. Her legs burn; sweat pours.
But something feels off to Carla. Where is the leading team? Given how fast she and Meghan have been riding, shouldn’t they be caught up by now? Carla doesn’t let this thought distract her too much. She continues pedaling and follows Meghan’s instructions. Harder, let’s go, keep pushing. She recites the team mantra internally. The pain is temporary.
Meanwhile, Meghan is keeping a secret: she and Carla aren’t chasing the leader; they are the leader. The reason Carla doesn’t know this is because she has only two per cent central vision. At ten years old, Carla was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration, and ever since then, a large black spot has been growing in her line of sight, eclipsing her vision. “I don’t know when the lights are gonna go out,” she says. But she does know it will happen eventually.
Which means Meghan is much more than an ordinary teammate or tandem pilot. On the road, she is Carla’s eyes. Not only does Meghan steer the bike, but she also instructs Carla on how to prepare and respond to the terrain. Is there a hill coming up? A steep corner to ease up for? Meghan relays this information verbally—sometimes using code words if they’re in competition—or through a sort of leg-language. “I’ll ease off on the pedals a tiny bit and Carla knows right away to ease off. It’s almost like she can read my mind.”
And while Carla is usually able to judge her and Meghan’s race position by counting the competitors they have or have not passed (she still has partial peripheral vision) she has miscalculated in this particular race. “We made an attack and got away really early in the race,” Meghan recalls. “We kept pushing to increase that gap. But Carla thought we were chasing.”
When they cross the finish line—first—Carla doesn’t know they’ve won. Meghan tries to tell her the good news, but Carla thinks it’s a joke. “I was so dumbfounded. It didn’t sink in.”
Carla’s shock lasts until she’s on top of the podium—top centre. “My hands were shaking. I was like, what? Is this a joke? Am I being pranked?’”
As cameras click and fans cheer, Carla and Meghan raise their arms high, trophies in hands, medals shining.
It is definitely not a prank.
“I’ll ease off on the pedals a tiny bit and Carla knows right away to ease off. It’s almost like she can read my mind.”
Two months later, they’re back on the podium—again, top centre. They’re in Lima, Peru, having just finished their final event at the 2019 Parapan Am Games, an international, multi-sport event that only occurs once every four years, similar to the Olympics or Paralympics. It’s Carla and Meghan’s fourth time on the podium this year in Lima. They’ve won two golds, a silver, and a bronze. They’ll return to Canada with much heavier bags.
No doubt their performance has edged them closer to making Team Canada and heading to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games, now being held in 2021. “But we’re hopefuls, not shoe-ins,” says Meghan. “The selection process is still being finalized and will depend on some races next year.”
But they certainly look like Team Canada material. Watching Meghan and Carla ride—legs churning exactly in-sync, heads bowed at identical angles—it’s easy to assume they’ve been riding together since childhood. But it’s only been two years. After meeting at a cycling club in Calgary, they began training together upon the suggestion of a mutual friend. “I was terrified at first,” Meghan admits. “Tandem bikes are very big and very fast. It’s not like riding a road bike by yourself at all.”
Carla had almost no fear at all. At the time, she was willing to ride the bike with pretty much anyone. “I can teach you to ride in two minutes!” she’d say to prospective partners, downplaying the steep learning curve. “I think it really scared a lot of people.”
“The more you ask for help, the more you’ll see that people are willing to give it.”
Meghan was able to keep her initial fears in check by taking a slow and steady approach to learning. That easing-in turned out to be crucial for establishing a solid, sustainable partnership. “I’ve had a few different pilots,” Carla says. “But the difference with Meghan was her conservative approach. It allowed us to build a foundation.”
Now, their sense of trust is iron-clad. “I can be on the back of the bike with Meghan and not feel any sense of anxiety,” says Carla.
Sports haven't always been a source of calm or joy for Carla. After her childhood diagnosis, athletics were an outlet for anger but also a huge source of that anger. Her vision loss made participation in sport either difficult or impossible. At 18, she had to give up running because she was constantly near-missing running into things—most notably, small children and deer on the road. She constantly wrestled feelings of why me?, especially since her sisters were both provincial-level athletes. A wrestler and a gymnast, they derived a sense of identity from sport that Carla craved but couldn’t access. She resorted to self-deprecating humor, joking that she was “just the blind girl.” “I used jokes to stuff away my feelings about my vision loss,” she says.
Wanting to help, her sister suggested she try goalball, a team sport played exclusively by people who are visually impaired. But playing goalball was a bit like trying on a pair of jeans that was designed to fit but didn’t. “The atmosphere wasn’t for me.”
Then a coach told her about Para cycling—the possibility of zooming down hills and powering up slopes with a sighted guide. “I was like, woah, a tandem exists?”
She felt hopeful. Her family felt...concerned. The fact that Carla wanted to ride a bike—without seeing the road—seemed reckless. “Everyone thought it was crazy!” she laughs. It didn’t stop her. “To this day, my mom says her heart just pounds [when she watches me ride] and I’m like, why? This is so much fun!’”
"The para community I’ve been exposed to in Canada—they’re such incredible, hardworking, humble people. It’s quite powerful. I enjoy working with Carla and being a part of something bigger than just myself.”
It’s been more than just fun. “Cycling has helped me accept my vision loss. I’m at peace with it now.” If she’s having a bad day, Carla will get on the bike with Meghan or her good friend Janelle and think, “ah, that felt good.”
Like Carla, Meghan discovered cycling as a result of physical challenges. A multi-talented athlete and former competitive soccer player, Meghan’s sports career took a turn after a series of knee injuries led to a frank conversation with her orthopedic surgeon. To avoid further injury, the surgeon advised Meghan give up soccer and try cycling. “The week after, I went and bought a road bike. And that was that.”
But it wasn’t quite that. Her true sporting breakthrough didn’t come until she discovered tandem cycling—and specifically, a tandem teamdom with Carla. “I enjoy Para cycling and being a part of that community more than any solo cycling I’ve ever done,” Meghan says. When asked how she feels to be accepted into the Para sport community as an able-bodied person, Meghan pauses to reflect. “It’s hard to put into words, honestly. The para community I’ve been exposed to in Canada—they’re such incredible, hardworking, humble people. It’s quite powerful. I enjoy working with Carla and being a part of something bigger than just myself.”
Their friendship outside of cycling carries its own power. They say they’re like sisters—unafraid to communicate their qualms but more unified because of it. They also just have a good time together. Meghan comes over for Middle Eastern dinners at Carla’s house, and they love to have those no one else would get this but us-type conversations. Chats along the lines of “what kind of mascara works best for when you have to sweat on a bike and then potentially appear on camera?” keep things light and fun between strenuous training sessions. “Finding makeup that we can wear while racing on a bike is a challenge we’ve been working on for a long time,” Meghan laughs.
As for their ten year age gap? They hardly notice it. “Carla has an old soul! She surprises me with her wisdom.”
They both cite remaining positive as integral to their partnership. This optimism has been especially crucial for Carla personally, as she doesn’t know how long her partial-sightedness will last. “I’m going blind and I’m looking forward to it,” she says. “That might sound bad, but it is what it is.” She says becoming less stubborn and learning to ask for help have been essential to her acceptance. “The more you ask for help, the more you’ll see that people are willing to give it.” Her advice for anyone facing unique challenges, especially physical ones, is to find some sort of outlet, to quit making excuses for yourself, and to let negativity fall away from you like water. “We have to be waterfalls,” she says. “Especially now.”
"It’s about the experience. It’s about enjoying whatever comes at me, with Meghan.”
As for competing at the 2021 Paralympic Games, Carla and Meghan say that’s definitely their goal—it would be a huge honour to represent their country at that level—but making Team Canada isn’t some kind of shining end point. “I’ve been asked before, ‘what if you don’t make it?,’” Carla says. “But it’s about the experience. It’s about enjoying whatever comes at me, with Meghan.”
Writer: Mica Lemiski