Inspiration on two wheels

Inspiration on two wheels: Ernie Franz returns to competitive cycling

On an August afternoon nearly 13 years ago, Ernie Franz found himself in a ditch along High School Road, with a fractured spine, a broken leg, eight broken ribs, a lacerated liver, two broken arms and a collapsed lung.

Franz had been hit by a sedan, driven by an intoxicated 19-year-old.

“I remember the whole day, right up to the moment I got hit,” he said.

That was it.

“I don’t remember anything else after that other than waking up in Harborview on day four or five,” Franz said.

He would remain in the hospital for four months, but the bad news arrived fast. Six days after being admitted, it was discovered that he had sustained a serious spinal cord injury.

“They thought I’d be moving. And I just wasn’t moving at all, like they thought I should be,” Franz said.

If there was ever a need for a second opinion, Franz really already had one.

At the time of his injury, he was working as an emergency room doctor at Virginia Mason. And he knew that a high neck fracture threatened to render him a quadriplegic.

The road didn’t end there, though. Actually, it was just beginning.

An avid cyclist, Franz was determined to work hard toward recovering the use of his arms and legs, so that he could ride his bike once again.

“I was doing physical therapy about five or six days a week for the first year or more,” Franz said.

Even so, expectations had to be dialed back.

“After a spinal cord injury, there’s just only so much that you’re going to get back and you’re going to be left with some deficits. I’m definitely weaker than I used to be,” he explained.

“I have a host of other issues that I deal with, but it just becomes part of life and you learn to adjust and live with those things and go on,” Franz said.

And the biking? Well.

“I still have the desire to compete,” he added.

It appears that Ernie is not the only Franz with a competitive spirit. Heidi Franz, his daughter, is a two-time USA Cycling Women’s Collegiate champion.

And, as fate would have it, in April this year, USA Cycling’s Collegiate &Para-Cycling Road National Championships were held at the same event in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Ernie Franz saw his opportunity. He would travel to Colorado to cheer on his daughter, while also getting a taste of competition for the first time since his injury in 2004.

“It was just really fun to be back competing and also hearing these stories of the other people who were injured,” Ernie Franz said.

“They all have different stories, and everyone there is about overcoming disability and learning to adapt and live and ride and compete with a disability. I really love that, because they’re not people who are just going to sit by and wallow in self-pity, they’re just going to get on with life and go for it. It’s fun to be around that crowd, and I would love to continue to compete,” he added.

While the camaraderie seemed to be a big bonus for Franz, he wouldn’t be pulling any punches when it came to the actual race. Thirteen years after suffering an injury which threatened his ability to do something as simple as drinking a glass of water, Franz pedaled his way to two bronze medals, in the 33-mile road race and the 12-mile time trial in the Men’s Para-Cycling Road National Championships.

In addition to his medals, Franz also found a brand-new way of defining himself.

“You meet these other people there that are racing, and they consider themselves para-athletes and I never really had thought of myself as a para-athlete. So now you actually begin to think, ‘OK, I guess I am a para-athlete,’” Franz said.

“It’s an acceptance of your disability but it’s also this identity that I don’t think I’ve really ever had before. And it’s fun to think of that. Because then you start thinking even more about what I’m eating and how I’m carrying myself through the day in terms of my muscles and my muscle tone and what else I could do to improve my speed,” he added.

Franz said that the race mindset has begun to creep into the way he trains at the gym, as well.

“I would mentally always be thinking about being in a race or what I could do to push hard, a harder gear, faster cadence or trying to do a lot more race training, at least mentally — even though I’m just indoors on a spinning bike in a class,” Franz said.

As for Heidi Franz, she did her father proud.

Franz claimed the 2017 Women’s Collegiate Road National Championship after winning two gold medals in the individual time trial and the criterium, as well as one silver medal in the road race.

Franz said her competitive drive is in no small amount due to the hardships she has watched her father overcome.

“I think watching my dad go through that process of relearning how to ride and being really devoted to it, pushing really, really hard and working with people that were in his corner and really supportive, was just super inspiring to me,” she said.

Now a recent college graduate, Franz is pursuing a career as a professional women’s cyclist.

While Heidi and Ernie Franz say there is competition yet to come, and races yet to race, perhaps more importantly, though, the two say that they will continue to find inspiration in one another.

“I’m inspired by Heidi,” Ernie Franz said.

“I’m trying to push myself because she’s pushing herself.”