This Paratriathlete Always Loved Cycling, But Took It to the Next Level After His Leg Amputation

·11 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy Kyle Stepp
Photo credit: Courtesy Kyle Stepp

Name: Kyle Stepp
Age: 28
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Occupation: National Cause Partnerships Manager
Time Cycling: Casually since I was 3 years old and competitively for less than two years.
Reason for Cycling: Cycling is my vehicle to find healing, experience freedom, and connect with my deepest sense of self.

I still remember learning how to ride a bike outside my grandparent’s house at three years old like it was yesterday. Since then, being outside on my bike has been where I found freedom.

For the first 25 years of my cycling journey, it was a hobby, a form of exercise, a mode of transportation, and a fun outlet.

After graduating college, I became good friends with a gentleman named Tom, a local triathlete in Indianapolis. After asking him many questions about cycling and how to get into the sport, he offered to take me to a bike shop in Indianapolis to get my first “real” road bike that would last me a decent amount of time. Before this moment, I would borrow different friend’s bikes or use my cost-effective bike from Amazon to go on rides with friends.

As a kid and young adult in college, I could never afford a quality bike and was always intimidated by cycling because of the cost and my lack of knowledge, experience, and knowing people in the sport. It wasn’t until I met Tom who took the time to educate me on the different types of bikes, the process of getting fitted, and how to get set up with all the proper gear. That day, I left the bike shop with my first road bike, a Cannondale CAAD 12.

That same summer, I started cycling regularly with frequent training to prepare for my first bike race back in my hometown, the Lobo Cancer Challenge. The Lobo Cancer Challenge is a charity bike race to benefit the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, the same center that saved my life. After successfully finishing the 50-mile race in the mountains, I was hooked.

I have overcome many challenges in my life, and I am also an amputee cyclist. As a kid, I grew up in a broken home in Las Vegas, Nevada, with abusive parents that fell into addiction. After years of living in an unhealthy and unsafe environment, I was abandoned and had to move into a boys’ home. Thankfully through the team’s support at the home, I got the legal rights to move in with my grandparents in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This moment felt like a new beginning and a promise for a fresh start.

In 2008, like most freshmen, I planned to walk through the doors of my high school brimming with confidence and an attitude to try everything, like run for student government and try out for baseball. But one afternoon during a kickball game in gym class, I dropped to the ground in excruciating pain after being hit by the kickball directly in my knee. I kept thinking, “How did a simple kickball cause so much pain?” The solution at the time was to wrap my knee and assume things would be fine.

The following week during baseball tryouts, I tried to stretch a base hit into a double, and when I slid into second base, I felt my knee pop. Again, excruciating pain. While the assumption was still that it was a sprained knee, I was instructed to visit a family physician to get a closer inspection. When the doctor probed below my left knee, I screamed again in pain, and the doctor ordered an X-ray.

I had no idea what was about to happen. That Friday night, the doctor called my grandparents and shared with them that he had concerns, and that they needed to get me to UNM Children’s Hospital immediately. The X-ray revealed a large tumor in my left leg and a biopsy revealed stage four osteosarcoma (a rare, aggressive bone cancer), and it had spread to my lungs.

Suddenly, the promise of a new life was transformed into the fight of my life. On October 14, 2008, I would start a three-and-a-half-year battle filled with countless rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries, overnight stays at the hospital for months, and specialist visits.

One of the surgeries I had was called limb salvage, which was the removal of my tumor while replacing my infected femur, knee, and tibia with a stainless steel endoprosthesis implant (a massive multi-piece steel rod, essentially). Unfortunately, because of the severity of my surgery, I was left with a series of complications that included nerve damage and a drop foot on my left leg. Because of the metal implant and damage to my nerves, I couldn’t continue with my passion for baseball and other contact sports and had to lean on my childhood passion for cycling.

One of my fondest memories during my recovery after my surgery, was the first time I could get back on my bike and the day I rode my bike eight miles to and from physical therapy. After my cancer diagnosis, cycling was my outlet where I could feel free, experience genuine happiness, and find healing.

On October 17, 2020, I was in the mountains of northern New Mexico doing what I love the most: being outside on my bike. It was the last run of the day, and I was speeding down a gnarly trail at Angel Fire Mountain Bike Park. I lost control on a turn and slammed my reconstructed left leg into a tree.

I hit exactly at the femur where the endoprosthesis was anchored. I completely fractured my femur, and the internal prosthetic had separated from my leg. I was lying there and knew the day I had anticipated all these years had finally come—I would lose my leg.

Unfortunately, the endoprosthesis I received at 14 during my battle with cancer couldn’t last forever, and due to wear and tear, I would eventually have to have an amputation. For some people with the same surgery, the implant will get infected and require an amputation. For others, it will be a simple break. But for me, it was while downhill mountain biking and crashing into a tree.

After my accident, I was airlifted to the hospital under siege by the COVID-19 pandemic. No visitors were allowed, and the only available rooms were sparse. Over the next 36 hours, I would wait for my surgeon to return to New Mexico to facilitate my above-knee amputation surgery.

After my accident, I was FaceTiming two of my friends who are also amputees, and they both shared with me how hard it was to take their life back after their surgery. Both shared that the turning point for their confidence, strength, and self-love with being an amputee was when they started pursuing goals bigger than their pain.

Following that call and the day before my amputation, I wrote down four goals knowing they would be hard, but they would help me pursue my passions rather than get lost in pain:

  1. Return to cycling immediately, no matter what it takes

  2. Return to skiing by the opening weekend (six weeks after my accident)

  3. Discover a new passion I have never tried before

  4. Celebrate my first post-amputation anniversary with a race or challenge to culminate and celebrate how far I have come

Those four goals set me on a path of turning my pain into a purpose. Not only did I accomplish those goals, but I also found healing, confidence, self-love, and pride in being an amputee.

On October 20, 2020, I was wheeled down the hallway on my gurney to the operating room to remove the broken endoprosthesis and have my left leg amputated above the knee. That day was the beginning of an unforeseen epic journey. The surgery marked the end of a chapter in my life that had begun a dozen years earlier when I left a tumultuous childhood for what promised to be a fresh start in Albuquerque with my grandparents.

The following day, I was committed to getting out of bed and taking my first step toward owning my new life as an amputee. Ever since that moment, I haven’t looked backed and accomplished the unimaginable in the past 20 months.

In my first two months, I returned to cycling indoors weeks after losing my leg, thanks to the fantastic CycleBar team in Albuquerque, where all fitness levels and abilities are welcome and empowered. Today, I have completed more than 75 rides with the CycleBar team’s continual support.

I also finished the Lobo Cancer Challenge 50-mile race on one leg less than a year after my accident.

To celebrate my one-year amputation anniversary, I finished the one-mile open water swim and 44-mile bike race at the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon. I also became the first para-athlete to race and finish the Iron Horse Classic (Durango to Silverton, Colorado) on one leg—that’s 50 miles, 5,700 feet of elevation gain over two 10,000-foot passes.

In June 2022, I qualified for the USA Paratriathlon National Championships at my first full triathlon after learning how to run on a running blade for the first time seven days before the USA Paratriathlon Development Series Race & Triathlon. Three weeks later, I won third place and a bronze medal in the PTS2 class at my first Paratriathlon National Championship on July 17, 2022.

It wasn’t until my left leg was amputated above the knee that I started taking my passion and love for cycling to the next level. My journey with cycling drastically changed after my surgery because I leaned into the adaptive sports community (Dare2Tri, Challenge Athletes Foundation, Telluride Adaptive Sports, New Mexico Adaptive Sports), which introduced me to the world of para sports competitions and elite para classifications.

The past 20 months of being an amputee and cycling on one leg have laid the foundation for my goals and dreams of taking my passion for paracycling and paratriathlon to the next level. The races I finished were milestones in my recovery and allowed me to build my strength and confidence back.

My number-one goal is to learn as much as possible, fall in love with the process, lean into the beautiful community of para athletes and enjoy the freedom that cycling and triathlon bring me.

Over the coming year, I plan to continue racing and representing the para community at local, regional, and national competitions. In 2023, my goal is to qualify to represent the U.S. at a World Triathlon World Series Race. There is a lot to learn about the sport, to learn about myself and experience. I may have lost my leg, but I have found freedom through movement.

Cycling has been my vehicle to experience freedom and discover how beautiful life can be, no matter the challenges life throws me. Ever since I was a little kid, being outside and on my bike is where I felt safe, connected to life, and had a deep sense of self.

Through every stage in life, cycling has been my outlet to navigate and survive adversity, hardship, and pain. When I am out riding at sunrise, crushing mountain passes, or competing in the Paratriathlon National Championships, I am not disabled, a cancer survivor, or a childhood trauma survivor. I am an athlete and a human living to experience freedom.

These tips have made my cycling journey successful:

1. Fall in love with the process

Learning to fall in love with the entire experience and sport of cycling is so important. Take the time to enjoy it all, from learning how your bike works to fixing a flat to relishing in the celebration of finishing your first race. Enjoy the small moments, frustrating challenges, and accomplishments!

2. Embrace being a novice

Take the time to learn from the experts, and don’t be afraid to ask all the questions. Learning about all the nuances can be intimidating—let others make it easier for you! I highly recommend going to your local bike shop and asking if you can spend an hour or two learning everything you can about the sport. I promise you, they are more than willing to support you!

3. Create a community in cycling

Find your crew to ride with! Whether that is a friend just getting into the sport, a community-focused indoor cycling studio like CycleBar, or a group of friends you follow on social media you see out riding, or a local cycling club. Riding with a group is the best way to build your confidence and strength because you get to learn from others at varying stages in their cycling journey.

Kyle’s Must-Have Gear

Dare2tri Gear: Dare2tri is a national paratriathlon organization with the mission to enhance the lives of individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments by building confidence, community, health and wellness through swimming, biking, and running. If it weren’t for Dare2tri, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today.

100% Eastcraft Sunglasses: Not only are these sunglasses the best out there, but 100 Percent are proud partners of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

Scicon Sprots Bike Travel Bag: If you have ever had to break your bike down to travel for a race or a trip and pack it into a bike bag, you know how much of a pain it can be. The Scicon bag is hands down the best, safest, and easiest bike bag to use out there.

We want to hear how cycling changed you! Send your story and submit your photos to us via this web form. We’ll pick one each week to highlight on the site.

You Might Also Like