Candice Kennedy was intent on a sports career, and turned to the Tandem Project. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Candice Kennedy’s plans changed remarkably just last year.
- The Tandem Project was started by Paralympic gold medallist Kieran Modra
- It pairs vision-impaired riders with sighted pilots
- Modra was killed in a road crash last year but his legacy endures in the project
The 20-year-old was a softballer on an elite path, only to discover her eyesight was failing because of a genetic condition.
“I found out that I was going to lose my vision and my whole life ended up changing,” Kennedy said.
“I don’t really think I gave myself any time to adjust.
“I heard about the news and tried to get myself involved in the blind community in any way possible.”
She was not prepared to give up on a sporting career, though, and a friend suggested reaching out to the Tandem Project.
The program was conceived by Paralympic cycling gold medallist Kieran Modra, who died when he was hit by a car north of Adelaide in November.
He knew one of the biggest obstacles for vision-impaired cyclists was finding a pilot — a sighted rider who effectively becomes the eyes on a tandem bike.
He wondered why there weren’t more pilots available and sought to solve the problem.
For almost a decade, the Tandem Project has been sourcing pilots and pairing them with vision-impaired athletes and races, under the banner of the Black Chrome cycling team.
It is the only program of its type in Australia, but there are no free rides.
“We are not a vocational program,” Tandem Project manager Victoria Veitch said.
“We’re not here just to take blind people for a pleasure ride … they have to be fit, they have to be willing to train and if they do then they are entitled to a pilot.
“We want athletes who can hurt themselves and train hard and we don’t feel that we should go any easier on them than we would an able-bodied athlete.”
Friendships and Olympic dreams
Given her chance, Kennedy found immediate success and was given a challenge.
“They wanted to take me to nationals after my first training ride,” she said.
With just three months’ preparation, Kennedy and pilot Veitch smashed the field in the road race with a winning margin of almost 18 minutes.
Her next goal is the Paralympics, although she has left it too late to qualify for Tokyo, instead setting her sights on 2024 in Paris.
Like Kennedy, Beau Wootton has a genetic condition affecting his vision, and the 21-year-old discovered the project through Modra.
“I went out and had a trial and loved it from there on,” Wootton said of his introduction to tandem bike riding.
He was paired with Mike Hoile, the captain of the Black Chrome cycling team, and they won the men’s national road title.
“I trained really hard for four months,” Wootton said.
“Cycling has changed my life, changed my attitude — the way I look at things — and now I just want to try and inspire myself to go further with it.
“At the end of the day, what we’ve taken is a group of sometimes very broken people and we put them back together,” Veitch said.
“We give them a team where able-bodied athletes and disabled-body athletes interact with total equality.
“That’s what we’re here for.
“The gold medals and the achievements are great, but at the end of the day our role is just to be family.”
This was Kieran Modra’s vision. His legacy includes the Black Chrome racing team and its Tandem Project which, like Modra, is one of a kind.
Participants are committed to hard work, but also enjoy the friendships the project fosters. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)