The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

May 16, 2005

UI Professor, Students Help Give Special Olympians More Pedal Power

Each summer some 2,500 men and women with intellectual disabilities gather in Ames for Special Olympics Iowa, competing in everything from tennis and soccer to aquatics and track and field.

While the competition is inclusive by design, some Iowans have intellectual -- and sometimes physical -- disabilities so profound that they can only cheer from the stands. This is especially true in events like bicycle racing, part of the track and field competition, which demands balance and the ability to pedal and steer sufficiently so the athlete doesn't pose a safety risk to herself or others.

But several years ago, University of Iowa art education professor Steve McGuire did something to level the playing field -- or, rather, the racetrack. A longtime cycling enthusiast who has pedaled across the globe, telling and gathering stories as far away as Iceland, McGuire began to modify tandem (two-person) recumbent bicycles and tricycles to allow almost anyone to ride, even someone incapable of peddling or steering.

On Thursday, McGuire and five undergraduate art education majors will team up with about 16 of West High School Special Education teacher Steve Merkle's students to take a half-dozen of these modified cycles to the state Special Olympics, which runs through Saturday. The contestants will sit in the back and pedal to the best of their abilities while McGuire and the UI students will sit in the front to steer and assist with pedaling. Merkle, who has taken part in the event in previous years, is staying back this time because his pregnant wife is nearing her due date.

McGuire, who plans to videotape the races as part of his ongoing Tandem Stories Quest project, said two notable modifications make the cycles ideal for the Special Olympics. First, he created an independent pedaling system that allows the person in the rear seat to pedal as quickly or as slowly as she is able while still contributing to the cycle's forward momentum. And he installed a basket-like rear seat that allows even quadriplegic contestants to ride in the race. Additionally, by using recumbent, tandem tricycles, which are lower to the ground and far more stable than traditional adult-size tricycles, riders need not have perfect balance to compete.

"There are a lot of students who really can't participate with any other kind of vehicle," McGuire said. "We tried to make these cycles adaptable to a wide range of students physically. This gives them the possibility to participate when they couldn't before. And the camaraderie that develops between the tandem-team partners is really rewarding, for the students at West High as well as the university students."

Merkle, who has been in special education for 13 years and at West High School for seven, has accompanied McGuire to Special Olympics Iowa for about three years and has been pleased to see organizers develop new categories within the cycling competitions, including a modified class that allows recumbent tricycles and a unified class for tandems in which a severely disabled person can ride without having to pedal.

"It's really opened up a window for two or three different physical ability levels," Merkle said. "We used to have a large tricycle, but you can't ride those fast or they may tip around corners. What's neat about the tandem, recumbent trikes is that all students are able to participate now. It used to be that only six or seven students could ride, but now the entire class can, 20-plus students."

In addition to the West High contestants, McGuire said that some students from Atlantic High School will make use of the special cycles during the Special Olympics. The cyclists will compete in 1K, 5K and 10K races.

In addition to being a sculptor and professional storyteller, McGuire is an avid cyclist who has toured more than 30,000 miles. In 1995, he completed what is billed as the "World's Toughest Human Powered Ultra-Marathon," the Iditasport -- a start-to-finish bicycle race on the Iditarod Trail in Alaska in the dead of winter. And in 1997, he led a bike tour from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Iowa City to raise money for the Close Encounters Art Workshop, a two-week summer residency program for high school students with physical disabilities.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.