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St. Petersburg’s Monica Sereda set to make Paralympic debut in Tokyo

The 54-year-old will represent the United States in para-cycling, which begins on Aug. 31.
Monica Sereda, center, will make her Paralympics debut with the U.S. para-cycling squad later this month in Tokyo.
Monica Sereda, center, will make her Paralympics debut with the U.S. para-cycling squad later this month in Tokyo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 20
Updated Aug. 21

TAMPA — Just as on her trike, Monica Sereda knows how to get through the rough spots in life. When challenges have pushed back like the wind, she’s pedaled through the resistance one rotation at a time.

That perseverance has paid off, as Sereda will make her Paralympic debut in Tokyo this month as a member of the U.S. para-cycling team. Her first event is scheduled for Aug. 31.

“I’m super excited,” said Sereda, 54, of St. Petersburg.

After 24 years of service, the U.S. Army veteran retired in 2011. But her toughest challenges were yet to come.

In 2012, Sereda was driving across the Courtney Campbell Causeway to officiate a boys basketball game at Calvary Christian High School.

She was stuck waiting for traffic to move in the right lane when a box truck came “barreling over the bridge” behind her carrying heavy medical supplies. As the driver tried to change lanes, his truck was closer to Sereda’s Tahoe than he thought.

Paralympic cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in the St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Paralympic cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in the St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The screeching noise behind Sereda caught her attention, so she turned her head to look out the side mirror. What she saw caused her to tense up and brace for impact.

“I just kind of raised my arm like that song, Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Sereda said. “That’s what I did.”

The accident forced Sereda to endure an aggressive recovery — fusions in her neck and back, burns from the airbag and five surgeries for her thumb due to how the airbag hit her hand. She was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. After a beer, she says, she’d become intoxicated and lose her train of thought. Her sentences didn’t make sense, either.

In 2014, she began to heal and used cycling as a means of getting through life while rehabilitating from her injuries. She found comfort on the seat of her trike, bringing her back to her childhood in Chicago, where she’d often pedal to the local park or to a friend’s house nearby.

“It’s just you and the bike,” Sereda said. “It brought me back to my childhood when you’re riding your little Schwinn with a banana seat. .. and motorcycle handlebars and we’d ride our bikes around. I was a towhead, so my little blonde hair would be flying in the wind, and just the wind in your face. ... I would ride my bike all the time.”

Paralympic cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in the St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Paralympic cyclist Monica Sereda, right, participates in the St Petersburg Bicycle Club’s 17-mile south-route ride on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But in 2017, she broke her elbow racing in the World Championships in South Africa. In 2018, she broke two ribs, tore her rotator cuff and bruised her heart after she flipped when a tire drifted right and hit a barrier during a race in Italy.

In 2019, she was participating in a normal group ride in St. Petersburg ahead of the World Championship race in the Netherlands when she had an ischemic episode, essentially a heart attack. It happened again in 2020.

At the time, Sereda’s chances of making the U.S. Paralympics squad appeared slim. But then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Games to be postponed a year, giving her time to heal and to have needed surgery on her rotator cuff without missing training time. Her dream was back in sight.

In May, she got the confidence boost she needed when she took double gold in the T2 classification at Belgium’s UCI Para-cycling World Cup, the first World Cup race of the 2020-21 para-cycling schedule. It led to her nomination for Team USA.

“... The adversity of overcoming all of these injuries since 2018 — the wreck, the surgeries — this extra year has been a godsend for me,” Sereda said. “Not only did I get fixed, but I got stronger.”

Competing for Team USA, Sereda is wearing a different kind of outfit from her camouflage combat uniform. But the feeling of representing her country, especially at this level, hasn’t grown old.

“To me, it means a lot more because it’s a smaller number (of veterans) and it’s a larger stage and people are actually going to see us,” Sereda said. “... This is a huge accomplishment ... and I haven’t medaled yet, but I’m praying that’s the plan. I’m still wearing (USA) on my chest, hand over my heart, when the national anthem is played, I’m as proud as can be.”

Sereda said she is one of six veterans representing the U.S. in para-cycling. In total, Team USA will have 240 athletes competing across 22 sports in Tokyo. And this year, NBCUniversal will air 1,200 hours of programming — including 200 hours in primetime — the most ever for the Paralympics.

Sereda will depart for Tokyo on Sunday after a connecting flight in San Francisco, where she’ll meet up with her teammates.

The group isn’t staying in the Olympic village like other athletes. In part, it’s because they’ll race on the Fuji International Speedway, about two hours southwest of Tokyo.

But Sereda’s thankful in a way, because it won’t be distracting or cause jitters. It’ll be just like any of her other international races, in a way. After her event ends on Sept. 2, she’ll conclude her two-night stay in Tokyo at the Olympic village, hopefully enjoying some sushi with a medal.

Competing for her country in the Paralympics is an honor Sereda doesn’t take lightly and one she’s hoping is open to her again over the next eight years. After Tokyo, she plans to continue her training for Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

“But let’s see how I do,” Sereda said. “My goal is to bring home gold, and I’m going to go out (and give it my all).”

Contact outdoors reporter Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.