By Janee Law
As a freshman at Cold Spring Harbor High School, Billy Lister was faced with a challenge that changed the course of his life: The left side of his body was paralyzed.
He was diagnosed with a chronic brain disorder at age 15, and soon underwent a successful surgery to remedy it, but suffered a stroke just after his 17th birthday that affected the left side of body.
Fighting through the disability, Lister, 34, has become a successful cyclist and earned a spot to compete in this year’s Paralympic Games slated to be held in September in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Lister earned himself a spot on the U.S. Paralympic cycling team after winning first place in the upright two-wheel cycling category, a 22-kilometer race, at the July 2 Paralympic trials in North Carolina. He completed the race with a personal best time of 31:29.
“All the hard work, dedication and sacrifice that was put in over the last few years to get to this point and have the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue on my back and represent team USA at the Paralympic Games is something that I’m going to cherish and be proud of forever,” said Lister, who currently lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “It’s a pretty unbelievable experience that I can’t wait to get a hold of.”
At 15 years old, Lister, who also played soccer, basketball and lacrosse, was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an acute brain abnormality that was found encroaching on his brain stem.
Although the surgery was a success, Lister said his brain began to develop swelling. At age 17, six months after the operation, he suffered a stroke that manifested for four-weeks.
“My [stroke] was actually a slow and aggressive process so each day I woke up and couldn’t do something I could do the day before,” such as typing on a keyboard or tying his shoes, Lister said.
The stroke resulted in an extremity-based paralysis on his left side. Although his shoulder, hips, core, glutes and quads have some motor function, Lister said the paralysis worsens towards the tips ends of his extremities, with zero function in his fingers and toes.
“I never realized that, for so many years, I wasn’t living my life, I was just surviving it and going through the motions. My life just had no purpose, no meaning, no joy, no real happiness,” Lister said. “It took a while for my eyes to open and realize that I still have a life and it’s a phenomenal life, it’s an awesome life.”
In 2011, Lister came across the San Diego-based Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit that helps individuals with disabilities get back into sports, and was invited to attend the para-triathlon camp.
That weekend, Lister said he re-learned how to swim with one arm, how to run and how to ride a bike that is controlled and operated from his right hand.
Using his right hand for steering and shifting gears, Lister pedals with his right leg. When he triggers the right-hand brake, a splinter causes the bike to engage both the front and rear brakes at the same time.
Lister’s stroke didn’t permanently affect his equilibrium, he said, but he said balancing on the bike is still a challenge. He learned how to manage it, however, and also uses assistive devices that aid his balance, including an ankle foot orthotic.
Lister said that, when re-learning how to ride a bike, he felt a sense of freedom and independence, propelling him to love racing.
“That weekend changed everything and got me to realize that even though I had a body that, at the time, I no longer wanted and that I was ashamed of, I still had a life to live,” he said. “I can still do some pretty amazing things and things that I love and that’s where everything changed.”
In 2013, Lister discovered Paralympic cycling and has been entering into bike races ever since.
Lister graduated from Cold Spring Harbor in 2001. He went on to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, graduating in 2005 with a bachelor of arts and science degree in political science. He then moved to New York City and started work as a field commodity trader for Manhattan-based Stemcor USA.
He was transferred to Southern California in 2013 and moved to Colorado Springs in January 2015 to live and train full time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. He stepped away as a trader in March to fully focus on making the Paralympic team, which saw him train for 35 hours a week.
With eight weeks left to train before the Paralympic Games, which run from Sept. 7-Sept. 19, Lister said he is preparing as much as humanly possible. His goal is to bring home a medal.
He’s set to compete in at least three events, including the 3-kilometer track individual pursuit, the 22-kilometer road individual time trial and the 70-kilometer road race.
“There’s never a moment that you can’t accomplish what you dream of,” Lister said. “Strive for it, work hard and you can achieve everything if you take it one day at a time. Every day that you’re alive is a day to do something special.”