The story of Laguna Beach resident and Olympic cyclist Paul Deem is as remarkable as any who perseveres against abject adversity. Born in France in 1957, he took up cycling as a youngster. In an impressive burst of speed at age 17, he covered 3000 meters in just 3 minutes 48 seconds at the Encino Velodrome — gaining 16 seconds on the former American record holder. Victorious achievement celebrations didn’t last long, though. Shortly after his record breaking race, Deem received harrowing news of his close friend and uncle’s premature death.
A year later, at the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City, Deem won the gold medal for the 4000 meter men’s cycling team pursuit, and then he cycled to tenth place in the 4000 meter men’s team pursuit at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the midst of his success, Deem was dealt a sharp blow when his best friend was murdered in a random drive-by shooting on the Los Angeles Harbor Freeway. Even while mourning, Deem found the strength and determination to create a legendary cycling moment in 1977: He powered to first place in the individual time trial, individual pursuit, team pursuit, and the 100 km time trial at the U.S. National Cycling Championships in Seattle. No one since Deem has won four national cycling championships in one year.
Despite closing in on the biggest victory of his career in Seattle, Deem never got any faster. U-turns became painfully difficult. As the competition got stronger, he lost authority. Fitter than ever, he still couldn’t cycle fast enough. His losses eventually forced him to stop racing in 1981. It never occurred to him that he had lost 90% of the muscle stimulation in his hands and feet until four years later when he was diagnosed with Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease (CMT). But an incurable disease would not be Deem’s finish line. Blessed with grand insight and courage, Deem began coaching on a national team level.
The same year he was diagnosed with CMT, Deem was coaching his then wife for the World Cycling Championships, Switzerland when, the week before the race, his brother-in-law was murdered by a single shot to the chest by a landlord gone postal. His sister-in-law survived a bullet wound in the same meaningless incident. The tragedy compelled Deem to sell his Diamond Bar bicycle shop and move to Colorado Springs for a brief reprieve, but that didn’t put him out of the cycling business. Deem spent the next 9 years selling specialized bikes for Univega, a company with $50 million in annual worldwide sales at the time.
At the height of his sales career, Deem’s eldest son was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease with an average survival time (from time of diagnosis) of approximately 25 years. Facing another steep climb, Deem took the lead and invested in several specialized bicycle shops in Orange County – businesses that helped fund exorbitant medical care. Deem still owns and operates two of those shops: Cycle Werks in Costa Mesa and San Clemente.
Life was brighter in 2005 when Deem married Debra Healy. Debra was a biking enthusiast and Deem taught her biking techniques that catapulted her to local cycling limelight. Everybody on a bike seemed to know Debra and they frequently reported sightings of her on the road and on trails. Debra rode some part of Pacific Coast Highway every day, and she was hyper vigilant about her safety.
Notwithstanding a lifetime of tragedies, nothing could have prepared Deem for the next turn of torturing events. On a fateful August 2013 day, while riding her bicycle, an 84-year old driver collided with Debra on Pacific Coast Highway. Despite wearing a helmet, she died. And, sadly her death is only the penultimate chapter to this story as the district attorney’s office is pursuing criminal prosecution, prolonging Deem’s closure.
As amazing as his story is, what is more evident is that Deem possesses a style and persona that reflect not only his afflictions, but conversely the hope and joy of overcoming tragedy that marks him as an individual and original.
Asked how he triumphs through tragedy, Deem teaches us, “Remember the good, and do something positive, productive every day.”
As a record setting cyclist, a trainer, and a biking-accident widow, Deem has the experience and credibility to convince this writer his opinions on bicycle safety are worth teaching our children.
“Bike riders need to learn to ride their bikes straight. Drivers don’t know what to expect when bikers weave in and out of cars. When you go in and out of traffic, no one knows what you are going to do. It’s better to be annoyingly in vision. Don’t swerve, go straight. Going in and out of cars alongside the road has got to stop.”
“It’s safer to ride in the middle of a lane. Drivers can see bikers in the middle of the road. You are safest in the middle of the road. Most people won’t run over what’s right in front of them. You have to be seen. I’d rather get honked at than hit.”
“Ride 3 feet away from parked cars, have patience, and pay attention.”