Hand cyclists made their way around Lake Almanor on Sunday, Sept. 16, during the annual Wheel Around Lake Almanor (WALA) wheelchair endurance challenge.
WALA was started by long-time hand cyclist Randy Fossum. Fossum was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1980 which left him a paraplegic.
Not one to stay still, Fossum began hand cycling shortly after the accident.
One night, Fossum and his wife Diane Fossum were having dinner with their friends Dave and Suzie Henise. Randy told Suzie he was thinking of hand cycling around Lake Almanor and Suzie said she would accompany him.
For every mile Randy rode, Dave donated one dollar to the Elks’ scholarship fund. Thirty-four miles and $34 later, the Wheel Around Lake Almanor event was born.
The next year, Randy was accompanied by two more cyclists. As each year went by, more cyclists joined in. This year nine hand cyclists and about 20 bicyclists rode the course.
Each year the hand cyclists participate in a fund drive to raise money for the Lake Almanor Elks Club. To date, more than $65,000 has been raised. Proceeds from the event are spread out to help a number of projects. WALA purchased a wheelchair for the Chester Library and helped fund an adult literacy program and an after school program.
In 2006, Chester High School student Kerri Peltier was hit by a car on Main Street in Chester and suffered severe spinal cord injuries. The next year WALA donated a hand cycle to Peltier. Peltier rode the WALA course every year since then.
“This is a great cause and it really helps,” said Peltier. “It helped me out a lot. WALA got me my first hand cycle and got me a computer when I was in the hospital so I could communicate with friends.”
Each athlete who participated was touched by WALA in some way or another. Quincy’s Patrick Cottini was present to enjoy the lake ride with friends. Cottini is an expert hand cyclist who has competed in many courses.
Cottini met Nick Covarrubias in 2000. Both were hand cycling in Indian Valley. Cottini invited Covarrubias to the WALA event that year. Covarrubias enjoyed the ride and the camaraderie so much he returned every year since then.
“This is the only ride I do that has a lot of other hand cyclists in it,” said Covarrubias. “I’m not fast enough to keep up with most bicycles, so it’s nice to ride with people my own speed.”
Emily Bennett is another athlete who attends WALA every year. Bennett, 22, lives in Westwood with her mother. Bennet was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at 6 months, and continues having trouble with movement control.
Bennett rode WALA in 2010. She went off the rode at and had to end the ride there. The next year Bennett came back, and rode well past the previous year’s crash site.
WALA’s athletes come back every year for more than just the ride. The event brings together a unique set of individuals who encourage each other to continue progressing.The night before the ride, the athletes gathered at the Elks Lodge for a spaghetti dinner. Presentations were given along with encouragement. The next morning everyone gathered again for breakfast and conversation.
“This isn’t a race,” Randy explained. “This is a personal challenge we all take on. Each one of us has different capabilities and we push our own limits.”
When Randy and Diane bought a house at Almanor, they decided to make the area more than just a vacation spot.
“We knew we didn’t want to be one of those people who buy a house and only come here two weeks a year. We wanted to be a part of this community.
When asked why he decided to do something for the community rather than simply enjoy his retirement in peace and quiet, Randy responded, “I don’t know any other way.”
By creating WALA, Randy gave the community something to stand behind. He made an event that raises money for causes in need. He made an outlet for a small community of hand cyclists. He gave hope and encouragement to others with disabilities.