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Years after MS diagnosis, former BMX champ remains true to recreational roots

Tue., June 9, 2015

Brenda Gildehaus relaxes next to her customized wheelchair May 27 at her home in Spokane Valley. Gildehaus, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 32, said she made the BMX-style modifications to her wheelchair because she’s always tinkered with her bikes. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Brenda Gildehaus relaxes next to her customized wheelchair May 27 at her home in Spokane Valley. Gildehaus, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 32, said she made the BMX-style modifications to her wheelchair because she’s always tinkered with her bikes. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Rows of shiny trophies perch on a shelf in an out-of-the way corner of Brenda Gildehaus’ home. The former top-ranked bicycle racer and national BMX champion earned those awards on rugged hills and dirt tracks across the country.

“I’ve always been an athlete – I just came out that way,” she said.

And bicycles in particular fascinated her.

“When I was a kid, my dad went to the thrift store and bought three bikes. I took them all apart and built a better one. I was always taking bikes apart and putting them back together.”

Her racing career came to an abrupt end when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 32. Now 49, she uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around. In true Gildehaus fashion, it’s a customized wheelchair – a titanium plate here, a modified seat cushion there.

From her Spokane Valley home, she reflected on her tumultuous journey.

Her father worked long hours to provide for his family and there wasn’t a lot of money for extras. Gildehaus got a paper route and baby-sat to earn money for bike parts. She hung around Spoke ’N Sport so much, the owner finally offered her a spot on his BMX team. He told her if she priced merchandise in the store, he’d pay her membership dues and race fees.

“I’m sure he wondered what he was going to do with this girl,” she said. It didn’t take him long to find out. Gildehaus began to rack up wins, quickly going from novice to expert.

“I didn’t race against a girl ’til I was in my 20s,” she said.

Racing took a backseat during her college years as she played softball and soccer. She met her husband, Jerred, at Whitworth University and they married in 1989. By the time daughter Stevie was born in 1991, Gildehaus was itching to get back to the racing circuit.

“I did everything full time. I worked full time, I mothered full time and I raced full time.”

And soon Stevie was racing with her. “She learned to ride a bike on a Monday and she was racing on Saturday,” Gildehaus said. “She was 3 years old. She said, ‘Can I race? If I fall, I’ll get right back up, I promise!’ ”

In 1996, Gildehaus and Stevie, 5, repeated as state BMX motocross champions, adding to the titles they won in 1995.

Two years later at the state championship, Gildehaus knew something was wrong. “I woke up and my feet were tingling. I felt off-balance.”

The next morning her symptoms worsened. Her feet were numb and she couldn’t clip into her peddles. Even so, she went on to win the race.

“We drove home from the state championship and I never walked without help, again,” she said.

On her daughter’s first day of second grade, Gildehaus ended up in the hospital for what would be a prolonged stay.

“When I was diagnosed, I was told I’d never walk again, never have another child and would die within two years.”

Instead of plunging her into despair, the grim prognosis “gave me something to fight against,” she said.

In addition, Jerred and Stevie gave her something to live for. “We did everything together,” said Gildehaus.

As she lay in her hospital bed, unable to walk, use the restroom or feed herself, Stevie climbed up on the bed. Brushing her mother’s hair from her eyes, Stevie whispered, “Mommy, don’t you worry. I’ll always take care of you.”

The Spokane Valley and BMX communities rallied around the struggling family. Fundraisers helped with medical bills and a close circle of friends helped mother Stevie while her mom adjusted to her new reality.

Even with all the support, hard years were in store as Gildehaus worked to be able to sit up, feed herself and eventually maneuver a wheelchair.

“I don’t think I’d be alive today without the tenacity and drive I learned in sports,” she said. “They told me I was in denial about having MS, but I didn’t want to go sit in groups and talk about how awful MS is. I wanted to live life.”

And so she did. In 2007, she gave birth to daughter Carsyn – once again defying the medical experts. “People say she’s a ‘whoops!’ ” she said, shaking her head. “It took me eight years to get medical clearance to try to get pregnant!”

She had to wean herself from medications that could be harmful to a baby. Finally at age 40, she was given the all-clear. The next month she was pregnant. “Pretty miraculous,” Gildehaus said. “I always knew all the don’ts were going to be do’s someday.”

While she no longer competes, her love of sports is still foundational to her life. She coached Stevie’s soccer team from third grade through high school. Over the years, she’s coached softball and basketball as well.

“I coached from my wheelchair. Once an athlete, always an athlete – it’s just inside of me.”

Currently, she coaches Carsyn’s soccer team.

That’s not to say living with MS has been easy. “I miss independence. I miss being totally self-reliant,” she said. “You know those pictures of moms walking with their kids? I’ve never walked with Carsyn and held her hand.”

Tears clouded her eyes briefly, then she raised her chin and said, “But I’ve held her hand in lots of other ways.”

Gildehaus may no longer collect trophies, but she has found a way to live life to the fullest.

“There are lots of things to look forward to,” she said. “I have MS – it doesn’t have me.”



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