Tricia Downing was hit by a car while training on her bike eighteen years ago and was paralyzed from the chest down. That could have been the end of her story; instead, it was a new beginning. And now the indefatigable Downing has come out with another story — this time a novel called Chance for Rain, based in part on her own paralympic experiences and her determination to come back strong.
In advance of a release party/reading of that book, we sat down with Downing to talk about her new career path as a writer, how her life experiences informed that process, and what might be next for the tireless Denverite.
Westword: You have a reading at Fiction Beer Company on August 21 — sort of a launch party for your new novel, Chance for Rain. Tell us a little about what to expect at that event. What are you most looking forward to?
Tricia Downing: Any excuse to have a party, right? Finishing a novel is like any other lifetime milestone —graduation, your 21st birthday, getting engaged — and it almost begs for celebration. Especially when it’s your first, and in this case an eight-year journey. I never could have imagined I’d write a novel, and now I’m itching to get started on my second, but I want to make sure to have the best send-off possible for Chance for Rain as it launches off into the literary world. Plus, when you’ve so often got your head down doing work, it’s a good chance to get together with the people who support me so much in all of my endeavors and thank them for their part in my accomplishments.
And why the debut specifically at Fiction Beer Company? Aside from the name, of course, which must be a thing, right?
I’m excited to have the party at Fiction Beer Company because as a book-themed bar, what could be better? It’s a great location with an awesome patio — I’m always on the lookout for the best patio restaurants in Denver. And the owners of Fiction have been so welcoming and helpful.
Chance for Rain is your first novel, but your second book. Talk a little bit about how your first book, 2010's Cycle of Hope, was a different experience in terms of the writing. How did that book change your life?
Cycle of Hope was a long process — I tried for probably six years to get the first words on the paper. It never happened. But when the time was right, I sat down and wrote the entire thing in nine days. It just fell out of my head and landed on paper. It went through little editing, and it’s definitely a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of book. Chance for Rain was a story that came into my brain as I was trying to fall asleep one night and kept waking me. Each time, I’d sit up, write a few more paragraphs, then lie down again; then more ideas, write, close my eyes, get up, repeat. Apparently, it wanted to be written. It’s a combination of the book I wish I would have taken the time to write when I wrote Cycle of Hope, and then part fiction and part education about life with a disability.
That’s interesting, that nighttime process of writing. So how did the editing process that followed go? How did that technique progress, once you had a draft and the invention stage was through? What were your writing habits while composing the various drafts?
Chance for Rain was such a learning process. After I had completed the first draft and sent it off to the editor, I thought it was pretty decent, and when it came back to me, it was covered with questions and comments from the editor, the equivalent of being scribbled over with red pen by an English teacher. I thought I was going to have to start from scratch. But as I worked my way through, I learned about scene and character development, descriptive writing and more. My editors were great to work with and taught me a lot of things I didn’t know going into the process. I was a journalism major in college, so I feel like I’m a generally competent writer, but creating a whole story and following the progression of a character through growth and change was something new for me.
The main character of Chance for Rain is a paralympic athlete named Rainey — clearly, Rainey is based on you and your experiences. So what are the differences between you and your main character? Where do you and Rainey diverge?
Rainey is an adrenaline sports competitor, as a skier and race-car driver. I’m not quite as gutsy and prefer endurance sports. As for the rest of her character, I don’t think we’re so far apart; her worries, experiences and growth are reminiscent of parts of my journey and parts of other women I have met who are wheelchair users. I’m in a lot of online groups with others who have disabilities, and relationships are always a hot topic. Can one still be accepted despite a disability? Rainey worries about acceptance. She worries about what others will think of her and her wheelchair. I used to think about that stuff all the time; now I don’t remember life any other way. It’s become a part of me, and I am totally at peace with it. That doesn’t mean it’s without its challenges, but I guess I’ve lived with it long enough and still had a great life. And I landed in a wonderful relationship with a great guy.
But Rainey — she fears she won’t find love because of her physical situation. I think that’s a worry for many people, and in variety of circumstances — not just love — but what I liked about writing her, and hope to convey to the reader, is that love and acceptance are universal needs. We all want to be accepted and liked for who we are and what we bring to the table, but sometimes it’s scary to put yourself in that vulnerable position of sharing your true self. Sort of like publishing your first fiction novel.
You've represented Team USA at the Olympic level and won a number of awards for your athleticism as well as your courage in the face of serious injury, including being in the Hall of Fame for Sportswomen of Colorado. How does recognition like that play into your ongoing work in the community? How does it fuel your competitive spirit?
The recognition I receive for the things I’ve done in sports or nonprofits is always nice — it’s good to be recognized for your accomplishments. But I think I have spent a lot of time proving to myself what I am capable of, and I think any worries or demons I have about acceptance are ones that have been with me my whole life. I do believe I have pushed myself harder since my accident than I did prior to my accident, but I have always been a goal setter, coveted accomplishment and craved success. With that in mind, I’m always trying to think of the next great thing I could do, where I can add my stamp or legacy to my life and, most important, help other people. I love the satisfaction of being a “roll” model for others, especially since I have many great mentors myself. I want to pay it forward. My competitive spirit? It was apparently something I was just born with, and it fuels everything I do.
You're also the founder of Camp Discovery, a three-day experience for women with disabilities designed to help them "overcome fear, obstacles and self-limitations." Can you talk about how that organization came to be, how long it's been running, and some of the women you've helped?
I started Camp Discovery as an answer to some of the struggles I had coming out of rehab after my accident. After I was paralyzed in a car vs. bike accident, I went to Craig Hospital for my rehab. While I was in the hospital, I was the only female on the spinal cord injury floor. And when I got out and started to get into wheelchair racing and hand cycling, it seemed like the only people I saw at events or camps and clinics were men. I always wondered where the women were, and thought it would might be a more relaxing and non-intimidating environment to learn around other women rather than being surrounded by men. So on a whim, I applied for a grant from the Avon Foundation and made up what I thought was the ideal scenario to help women who were struggling to find themselves amidst their disabilities or wanting to expand their worlds, build confidence and meet other women with the same types of experiences. With that first $5,000 grant, I gathered a group of friends to help me, and together we created this sports and fitness retreat, which we named Camp Discovery. This month we will have our tenth-anniversary camp [August 15 through August 19].
Between being an athlete, an author, an advocate, and your work with Camp Discovery and other community projects...do you ever think that you're too busy? How do you find the time for everything?
I’m definitely too busy! It’s something that I am working on. But it seems when I let one project go, another one fills its space before I even know what’s happened. Right now, I’m in a state of transition. I think it’s because I just turned 49 and I’m a bit apprehensive about 50. I’m beginning to take better control of what I take on for myself, while I try to find more “me time.” We’ll see how that works out!
Speaking of busy, we tend to think of athletes as always training, always on the go. But everyone needs some couch-potato time now and then. When you need to unwind, what do you turn to? What's your guilty pleasure when you binge-watch? What's on the TV, and what are you snacking on?
I’ve never been a couch potato. I don’t watch TV, per se — my husband has it all rigged so I don’t even know how to turn it on — but when I have time to spare, I curl up in bed and binge-watch Netflix on my laptop. When I’m watching alone, I’m probably watching some young-adult series, my guilty pleasures being Dance Academy, Backstage and Switched at Birth. Movies —any rom-com or sports drama. When I watch with my husband, we love The Walking Dead or anything action-oriented. I don’t do horror movies. What am I snacking on? I have a sweet tooth, so if there’s something sugary around, I’m all over it. I love Oreos and I love ice cream (better yet, Oreo ice cream), but I try not to keep that stuff around, because I will eat it all. I also recently learned that I could eat a whole Rocky Ford cantaloupe in one sitting if I allowed myself to. They are so good right now!
So what are your ideas for book number three? Fiction or non-fiction?
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There are two books in the running right now for book three, one fiction and one non-fiction. The non-fiction is more about what I have learned about mental toughness through my sports and injury, and would be primarily to use for my trainings and workshops. The fiction one is another love story with another main character with a disability. It’s going to take more research than Chance for Rain, but the plot is starting to come together in my head. I’m looking forward to some time to sit down and see what comes out.
You're a Denver native: What has Denver offered you in supporting you in being the person you are today? What's the one thing about Denver — or Colorado — that you'd never want to leave?
Denver is an amazing city. While I’ve had short stints of living in other places (Vermont, Illinois, Washington State), I have always come home to Colorado. At this point, Denver is getting a little too crowded for me, but every time I try to think of where I would move that would offer me something better, I draw a blank. I love the weather here — I’m not really into winter, but it’s not been too bad the last handful of years, and the 100 degrees-plus, I could also do without — but it’s generally gorgeous. So I’d hate to leave the sun, friends I have known my whole life and still see regularly, the mountains and the outdoor activities. Every time I go somewhere, I’m reminded of things that I did as a kid, how the city used to look thirty-plus years ago, places that my grandma took me, silly high school adventures I had. I guess if you put it all together in one thing, I’d hate to leave my history.
Tricia Downing will launch her novel Chance for Rain at Fiction Beer Company, 7101 East Colfax Avenue, at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 21; books (and beer) will be available.