Disabled triathlete pairs with former Ironman for 600-mile, cross-Colorado bike tour
July 14, 2017
Ride with PJ
From July 17-30, Fort Collins triathlete Dennis Vanderheiden and PJ Snyder, a 31-year-old from Wheat Ridge with Angelman syndrome — a genetic disorder known for minimal speech, poor motor skills and frequent seizures — will cycle some 600 miles in tandem across Colorado: Venderheiden on a bike, Snyder in a custom carrier.
And they’re tracking the whole thing online.
The two pass through Summit County July 24-25, but that’s only a slice of their trip. To follow Vanderheiden and Snyder as they pedal from the Four Corners region to Golden raising funds for Angelman research, visit FourCornersToAHome.com anytime during their trip. You’ll get live updates from the road, along with a virtual map showing their progress across the state. The website is also the best place to donate directly to Snyder’s cause and support an upcoming documentary the duo is filming on the bike tour.
The day before his 31st birthday, PJ Snyder did something his mom never quite thought would be possible: the Boulder Peak Triathlon at Boulder Reservoir on July 9, giving her adopted son a total of 70 endurance events since 2012. That's a rate of more than one per month, rain or shine, snow or sleet — and he did them all with Angelman syndrome.
"For him to be accepted into a non-disabled community, that has been really cool to see," Cindy Snyder said. "Even though he's nonverbal, he really does communicate with them and enjoys being there."
Angelman syndrome — a neuro-genetic disorder that leads to issues with balance, body perception and seizures — is rare, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S., according to the Mayo Clinic. PJ doesn't talk and doesn't walk on his own, meaning he always crosses the finish line at the exact same time as one of his partners with Athletes in Tandem, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit founded by former competitive triathlete Dennis Vanderheiden. The two first met in 2012, when Vanderheiden reached out to Cindy, and have since teamed up for dozens of races.
"We're recognized at races we go to," said Vanderheiden, who has been racing triathlons since 2002 and founded Athletes in Tandem in 2008. "Race directors welcome us because it's new and different, and in our minds we provide something to the race that no one else can: a team that's just a little different. People always say we inspire them. I'm not sure what that means, but I hope it's true."
For the past five years, Cindy, PJ and his partner athletes have spent at least one weekend every month in a different part of the state for bike races, fun runs, triathlons and just about everything in between. He's finished several half-Ironman triathlons, including the first-ever Lake Dillon swim at the inaugural 106° West Triathlon in Dillon last August, and has completed more than 20 Olympic-distance and sprint triathlons.
"He's done a wide variety for things, but he really does enjoy those triathlons," said Cindy, a former special education teacher for Jefferson County who adopted PJ 22 years ago, when he was a 9-year-old in one of her classes. "One of his other goals was to do one event per month, so come wintertime we can do the hot chocolate runs and turkey trots and all of that. As long as it's not wet, we'll go. We can bundle him up to keep out the cold, but drying out is another story."
Drying out hardly stopped PJ from entering the frigid waters of Lake Dillon last summer with Dave Sheanin, a University of Colorado-Boulder triathlon coach who towed the young man behind him on the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run above 9,000 vertical feet. It was hardly his first half-Ironman — he's done them in Boulder, Chicago and Wisconsin — and Vanderheiden doesn't expect it to be his last.
"One thing about PJ is that he has the stamina to do these long events," said Vanderheiden. "He loves being around the other people, cheering them on, running along beside him."
Through Athletes in Tandem, Cindy found a way to help her twenty-something son get outside and meet new people. The two are heavily involved in the Denver-area Angelman community, but the community is tiny and doesn't often offer ways to exercise. In contrast, Athletes in Tandem now serves 60 to 100 disabled athletes across the nation, from the Colorado home base to Arizona and Kentucky,
"He's very, very active," said Cindy, who retired from teaching soon after adopting PJ and now acts as his primary caregiver, which qualifies as a paid position in Colorado. "I'm a single mom and not really active, so he really enjoys getting out for races. He has a lot of partners because he's one of the smaller athletes, around 70 pounds, so he gets paired with girl partners a lot. He gets that flirting energy going on with that."
Tour across Colorado
Sometimes, flirting with his triathlon partners isn't enough. PJ was ready for something greater, something grander. A few years back, when Cindy asked close friends to help her plan for her son's future, Vanderheiden dreamed up a 600-mile bike tour across Colorado. The tour would be the biggest event of PJ's athletic career, but it would also raise funds to help the Snyders purchase a home for PJ, all while raising funds for Angelman research.
"PJ and Cindy don't have a lot of financial resources, but one of their goals was to get a home for PJ," Vanderheiden said. "They had to raise money, so in the back of my head I started thinking, 'What would it be like to do a bike tour across Colorado with one of my athletes?' That was really the genesis — was helping those guys reach their goals."
Later this month, from July 17-30, Vanderheiden and PJ will spend 13 days on the road cycling nearly 600 miles from the Four Corners area to Golden. Cindy plans to follow in a van, along with a documentary filmmaker who's tracing their journey for a joint story about PJ and Athletes in Tandem.
"I came to a realization that racing for myself wasn't very fun or meaningful," said Vanderheiden, whose first partner athlete, a now-23-year-old man with cerebral palsy, still competes in bike races after an open-heart transplant. "I thought it would be a nice way to reach across the table and meet a new population, share our passion for the sport."
While on the road, PJ and Cindy will sleep in hotels, while Vanderheiden and the filmmaker plan to camp most nights. The nonprofit's founder lost his wife to a brain tumor two years back, and so he sees the bike tour and documentary as much deeper than simply riding with PJ and his carrier.
"I enjoy it much more," Vanderheiden said of competing with athletes like PJ. "Your mindset changes. When you're solo, you're doing different types of workouts and racing for times and racing other people. Now, most of the training is still by myself, but I don't go for time or speed. I just go out to enjoy the bike ride."
For Cindy, her son's latest journey is more than 600 miles across his home state. It could be the financial groundwork for a home all his own, which is why they've given his live-tracking website a catchy name: FourCornersToAHome.com.
"PJ just absolutely loves being out there," Cindy said of PJ's time on the triathlon trail. "He loves to be outdoors, he loves the attention, he loves when people cheer him on … To be in a community that's not typically oriented for disabled people, that has been the biggest thing."