Nelson Vails is 58 years old and 35 years removed from his Olympic silver medal-winning performance. He still rides his bike every day.
Earlier this summer, Vails noticed that he couldn’t walk up stairs anymore. A trip to the emergency room yielded a diagnosis that Vails couldn’t have seem coming: high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
“In layman’s terms, it was like I was going with the engine light on,” he said Wednesday.
Vails now checks his blood pressure three times a day. He takes medicine and has a new diet: more fish, no meat and less sodium. He can still eat his beloved French fries — but with no salt.
He now shares his message nationwide.
Vails has been named the honoree for the 36th El Tour de Tucson, which will take place Nov. 17 throughout the city. Vails will participate in the 100-mile event.
“The way I share it, it’s more of a public service message to check your blood pressure,” said Vails. “I went on Twitter and did Facebook live. If I can save a life. For so many, this is our secret world that people don’t share. If I have it, you have it. Don’t ignore the symptoms.”
Vails’ journey to becoming the first-ever African-American cyclist to win an Olympic medal began in Harlem, New York. Vails became a bicycle messenger, and it didn’t take him long to discover he wanted to become a professional cyclist. By high school, he set a goal to medal at the Olympics.
“I was one of those overachievers,” Vails said. “I was in the right place at the right time and around the right people to become a part of the national team. I worked hard for it and did what I needed to do to achieve it. People remember I was ranked No. 1 in the world. But I put on my pants one leg at a time like everyone else. I was the same as everyone else.”
Now, he hosts “Ride with Nelly,” where he allows others to ride alongside him.
El Tour decided to honor Vails for a few reasons, according to Richard J. DeBernardis, president and founder of Perimeter Bicycling. Primarily, he said, it was to show that people are able to do whatever they want in the world.
“We wanted to show that all people are subjected to physical challenges, yet we can do something about it,” said DeBernardis. “(Vails) broke barriers and limits as a cyclist. He was the first African-American in cycling to win a medal. He made history.”
DeBernardis said El Tour registration is up 30 percent over last year at this time. However, the largest participatory sporting event in Southern Arizona remains without a title sponsor. El Tour raises money for 40 charities, with Easterseals Blake Foundation as the primary beneficiary for the third consecutive year.