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Para-cyclist Josie Fouts isn't Afraid of the Impossible

In a few short years, Fouts went from casual commuter to elite para-cyclist. Now she's on a mission to bring para-mountain biking to the Paralympics and inspire others with her story.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

Illustration by Richard Chance.

Last year, Josie Fouts lined up for one of the biggest races of her career: a time trial that would determine if she qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. But after only one kilometer, her 15km race was derailed by equipment issues. 

“The visor of my TT helmet just popped off,” Fouts said. While breathing hard, her cheekbones had pushed up against the visor and detached it. Her helmet then slid back on her head. “The visor actually helped keep the helmet down,” she said. “So I essentially rode the whole time trial with a parachute attached to my head.”

Although she didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Games, Fouts is able to laugh at herself while recounting the story. After all, TT helmets are only a minor challenge for Fouts, who is used to cycling gear not working with her body. As a transradial congenital amputee, she was born without her left hand, and she’s faced countless fit challenges during her cycling career. In fact, in her first couple of seasons racing, she didn’t even ride with a prosthetic device, as most para-cyclists do. 

In classic Josie Fouts fashion, she adapts to and overcomes these sorts of challenges by breathing through her teeth and smiling. This latest setback hasn’t tempered her ambition. If anything it’s added fuel to the fire. Her rise through the para-cycling ranks has been surprisingly fast, and now she’s carving a new path that leads off-road, far beyond the confines of an Olympic TT course.    

Josie Fouts Paralympic para-cyclistFouts with her ever-present smile, sitting with her late great companion, Kadar. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

From scientist to elite para-cyclist

Fouts was born in South Korea and was adopted at 6 months of age. She grew up in Toledo, Ohio, with a mother who instilled an early interest in health and nutrition. Fouts eventually earned a master’s degree in nutrition from Colorado State University where she met her partner, Taylor Warren, a collegiate cyclist. At the time she was a casual bike commuter, and she credits Warren with introducing her to the sportier side of cycling. 

“[Taylor] would go on these crazy rides, doing 80 or more miles a day. I started thinking, it's only 14 miles for me to commute to work. And with traffic, it's an hour whether I drive or ride my bike. So I thought, well, if Taylor can do that, I can do 14 miles,” Fouts said. “The more stressful work got, the more I wanted to ride. Eventually I was riding 28 miles a day, 7 days a week.”

Josie Fouts commuting by bikeThe commuter life. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

Fouts and Warren eventually moved to San Diego where she studied circadian rhythms as a lab manager at UCSD. Warren continued training and racing as a pro cyclist and got to know more riders in the San Diego cycling community. One of those riders was Cody Jung, a Paralympian with cerebral palsy who later competed in the Tokyo Games. 

“One day we all went on a ride together,” Fouts said. “I was on this old-school ‘90s Miyata with down tube shifters and I was working super hard just to keep up. Cody noticed me and kind of just presented the idea of the Tokyo Paralympics to me.”

Worst-case scenario, I don't make the team, but I get into really good shape and get to hang out with a bunch of cool people. To me, I couldn't lose, no matter what. I have definitely never regretted that decision. — Josie Fouts

After riding with her, Jung felt her odds of being selected for the U.S. team were actually quite good. The timing was perfect as Fouts was burnt out on academia and searching for something more meaningful. 

“It was the tipping point,” Fouts explained. “I thought, do I want to just read and think about being healthy? Or do I actually want to be healthy? So I took the chance. Worst-case scenario, I don't make the team, but I get into really good shape and get to hang out with a bunch of cool people. To me, I couldn't lose, no matter what. I have definitely never regretted that decision.” 

Fouts quit her job in 2018, and committed to training and racing full-time. The payoff came quickly — at her first-ever track competition, she won two national titles in the Individual pursuit and time trial. In 2019, she competed in over 50 races, many against able-bodied cyclists, and earned two silver medals at the Para-cycling Road National Championships in the road race and time trial. Needless to say, Fouts had found her calling.  

Josie Fouts Boise Twilight CriteriumFouts wears her national champ jersey at the Boise Twilight Criterium. Photo: Sawyer Pangborn. 

Improvise, adapt, overcome

Soon after meeting, Fouts and I bonded over the story of her ill-fitting TT helmet. Many Asian riders, including me, either have prominent cheekbones or a low nose bridge (or both), which means we often struggle to find eyewear that fits well and stays in place while riding. But of course, my eyewear struggles are trivial compared to what Josie deals with every day as a para-athlete.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, man, how do you tie your shoes,’” she said. “I usually respond, ‘Oh, you mean like this?’ and just do it.” 

Fouts grew up finding ways to adapt her body to the world around her. Whether it was learning to tie shoes one-handed or achieving her cycling goals, success was always achievable with enough stubborn determination. 

Josie Fouts paralympic para-cyclistInstalling tires one-handed. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

“I totally believe that we are all more capable than we know we are,” Fouts said. “I am the only person holding myself back and I want to show people that you can still do the things that you want to do, even if everybody says you can't. That's essentially how my whole life has been. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable,” she explained. “And I enjoy doing things that other people think are impossible.”  

Fouts ultimately brought this mentality to cycling. She committed fully, trained hard, and pushed her body to the limits for her goals. In her mind, if she just went and did the hardest thing possible, everything else would just become easier. It worked, scoring her impressive race results. But eventually, she came up against the limits of her body. 

I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. And I enjoy doing things that other people think are impossible. — Fouts

Fouts was so focused on finding her own way forward, that she hadn’t considered riding with a prosthetic arm. She’d already grown up and learned to be self-sufficient without one. So instead, she would rest her left forearm on the handlebar tops and put her right hand in the drops. Rather than relying entirely on the handlebars to turn her bike, she would apply body English and leverage through her saddle.

“With my riding position, I was always in the most aggressive position (in the drops), and I was always falling forward and to the right,” Fouts explained. 

Not only was this position tough on the body, but it made cornering more difficult, and cornering ultimately cost her some key podium finishes. It became clear that Fouts needed more than her own willpower to succeed. 

A helping hand

In 2020, Fouts met Katie Walker. She and Walker are surprisingly similar. They are both Asian women who were adopted and raised in the U.S. Both are amputees missing their left hands. And both happen to be cyclists. The two crossed paths by chance at their local gym. 

Josie Fouts and Katie Walker discussing cycling prostheticsFouts (left) and Walker. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

“She came right over to me and introduced herself,” Walker said. “I told her that I'd just started cycling and so that's kind of where our friendship began.” 

Walker faces many of the same riding struggles as Fouts. Unlike Fouts though, Walker adapted by riding with a prosthetic arm that attaches her left arm to the handlebars. 

“I started using prosthetics for sports about 10 or 15 years ago,” Walker said. “So when I started cycling, I started using one right off the bat. This ex-Paralympian, Greta [Neimanas], actually mailed me this attachment. When Josie saw it, she became interested.”

Unfortunately, because Fouts had lived successfully without a prosthesis for years, she was denied a new prosthesis by her insurance company. But yet again, Fouts found a way past her challenge, this time thanks to cinematographer David Stiles, who she met while mountain biking. 

David Stiles and Josie FoutsStiles filming for "Go Josie." Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

Stiles happened to live next door to a man with two prosthetic hands and through this neighbor he was able to help Fouts get a new prosthetic arm to support her Paralympic goals. He documented it in the film, “Go Josie.”

“At first, it was a big mental setback,” Fouts said. “Because up until that point, I was like, ‘I'm not different from everyone else. I don't need this extra thing that nobody else uses.’ When I'm in my prosthetic, I sometimes feel like people see me as less human because it looks like I’m part machine.” In the end though, learning to ride with a prosthetic arm was worth the mental and emotional discomfort. “Physically, my body is like, ‘Thank you, Josie. Why did you wait so long?’” 

“Our whole lives, adaptation has been the name of the game. And we're just so used to doing that,” said Walker. “Now, Josie wants her bike to be in line with her body and not the other way around. I think that’s so cool.”

We have the technology

“Let's talk about the obvious,” Fouts said. “Regular cycling equipment is not designed for para-athletes. And it's really hard and expensive to find somebody who actually understands what each individual needs.”

Enter Daniel Yang. “I met Josie through the San Diego riding community,” Yang said. “At the time, she was riding without any adaptive equipment. I noticed her bike position was extremely asymmetric because she had to rest her forearm on the top of the bars. I immediately thought, ‘Well that sucks and I could probably help.’”

Josie Fouts custom 3D printed handlebar cup mountsFouts' pursuit bike fitted with custom 3D printed handlebar cup mounts. Photo: Daniel Yang.

Yang works professionally in 3D printing and is one of the bike designers at Neuhaus Metalworks, which is building Fouts a custom mountain bike. In his free time, he uses his 3D printing and engineering skills to help Fouts design and prototype new prosthetic attachments. 

Yang began by designing and printing a “cup mount” for Fouts’s road bike handlebars and a dual TT brake lever to control the front and rear brakes simultaneously. He is currently working on a more breathable prosthetic sleeve designed for endurance cycling events where Fouts will need to wear her prosthesis for several hours. 

Josie Fouts custom breathable prosthetic sleeveA custom breathable prosthetic sleeve. Photo: Daniel Yang.

“3D printing has so much potential,” Fouts explained. “We can do the prototyping in our garage. For my prosthetic, we’re designing a sleeve with a material that is sensitive to temperature. When the material gets hot, it expands, so then when I'm sweating, I can get more airflow. I think it's time to really show how the power of 3D printing can empower people and human potential.” 

But despite the miracle of 3D printing, creating custom, one-off parts is never an easy process. 

“The biggest challenge is the interface between the soft (body) and rigid structures (the bike),” Yang explained. “Too tight and it is not comfortable. Too soft or flexible and the interface is not secure enough.” Creating the perfect part takes a lot of trial and error to get right. “For every finished design that you see, we have 10-20 different models that didn't make the cut.”


Paying it forward

In only a few years, Fouts went from a casual commuter to an elite para-cyclist. She’s fully aware that she wouldn’t be here without the support of cyclists like her partner Warren, and the enthusiastic friends she’s made within the cycling community. 

“I realized that having Taylor's resources as a professional cyclist really helped me accelerate to this level, and reach for these crazy goals,” Fouts said. “Maybe others have tried and failed, or they just don't see how possible it is because it's taken them so long to get to the point where I am. I feel like I have this obligation to give back not just to Taylor, but to the whole industry.”

Josie Fouts and Katie Walker para-cycling trainingFouts (left) riding alongside Walker. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

Fouts has also already had a positive influence on the careers of other para-athletes like Walker, who is now a track cyclist and Paralympic hopeful living and training in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. 

“To take cycling to the next level, you need the right equipment, and you need somebody there with you to kind of show you the ropes. She was that person,” Walker said. “She was able to pass along her knowledge to me from the very beginning and she let me borrow equipment, even a bike.” 

The next mission

Since Fouts didn’t make it to the Tokyo Paralympics, she will have to look forward to Paris in 2024. But she’s come to a surprising crossroads in her career. During the pandemic, she fell in love with mountain biking. The off-road bug bit her so hard that she was ready to devote herself to mountain biking. There’s one problem though. The Paralympics currently only offer road and track racing. 

Riding on trails, it feels kind of like getting through life. Rather than trying to beat the person next to me, I’m just as satisfied riding against myself. — Fouts

“In Paralympic cycling, so much is based on the individual time trial, which is not why I started cycling,” she explained. “The aspect I loved about riding is working together with other cyclists. In the Paralympic road races even, the field strings out and it just turns into a time trial for everybody, because nobody wants to work together.

"The biggest lesson from the Tokyo Paralympic trials is that I can't take things too seriously. It just puts me into this weird vibe where nobody else matters.”

In the time since the Paralympic trials, Fouts sought an environment where she could see more of her competition as friends. Mountain biking was the antidote she’d been looking for. 

Josie Fouts Paralympian para-mountain bikingFouts racing her mountain bike at Sagebrush Safari. Photo: Wildglass Photo.

“I love just being outside, in nature, on trails, where there are no cars coming at you,” she said. “Riding on trails, it feels kind of like getting through life. Rather than trying to beat the person next to me, I’m just as satisfied riding against myself, doing things like getting up a really steep, long pitch that's super loose without putting a foot down. I think it’s much more inviting for people with different skills and abilities and body types to have a safe place to explore what feels good for them.”  

Now, Fouts’ new mission for 2022 is increasing the profile of para-mountain biking, with the hopes of getting it added the Paralympics. She also wants to accomplish new and daring mountain biking and bikepacking goals that she’s set for herself. 

Her first major challenge of the year will be setting the first para-FKT (fastest known time) of the White Rim. Fouts first rode the White Rim in 2020. She was blown away by its beauty, but also by the efforts of riders who descended on the trail that spring to chase the FKT. She decided then and there that she would come back and do her own.

This will be Fouts’s first time riding the full trail in a day, and she’s excited to dive headfirst into the unknown. She’ll have a new breathable prosthetic sleeve and a custom mountain bike for the ride and David Stiles, the cinematographer who helped procure her first prosthetic arm will be tagging along to film the adventure. Because an FKT by a para-cyclist has yet to be recorded, finishing is all Fouts needs to do. Ultimately though, it’s less about the time and more about the journey. 

“When I hear ‘100-mile mountain bike trail,’ for some reason, it doesn't scare me. It excites me,” she said. “I don't really want to know what I’m getting into. I'll just want to find out when I get there. I know it's gonna be beautiful the whole time. So it doesn't matter how steep it is, or how difficult the terrain is, I already know I'm going to enjoy it and love it. I just got it.”

Josie Fouts and Taylor WarrenFouts at home with partner Taylor Warren. Always smiling. Always stoked. Always ready for adventure. Photo courtesy of Chad Hall & Gingerly Films.

“I hope it inspires not just para-athletes to ride mountain bikes, but anyone who’s just picked up a bike and want to ride. I also want it to show people that anyone can build bikes that fit them and suit their needs. And show how we can be more inclusive and use the technology we have to better people's lives.”

Plenty of fit, able-bodied riders have never completed the White Rim in a single push. I certainly haven’t. Fouts and Stiles are brimming with enthusiasm and confidence, and it's contagious. When I asked Walker about it, she smiled and said, “You know Josie. She's a go-getter. If she sets her sights on something, she’ll achieve it.”