Training has long since been the variable that sets apart the elite; determination, dedication and discipline are universally accepted as the ingredients to overcoming adversity. Unfortunately, not all trials have a linear solution and not all races can be won. After all, who can regrow an amputated limb?
According to the Amputee Coalition, there are over two million Americans living in the US with an estimated 185,000 amputations each year. Some derive from trauma; others are congenital. The bottom line is the process is irreversible and those affected have to face a completely different reality.
Fortunately, there is the option to engage in adaptive sports. With the aid of prosthetics designed for athletic purposes, adaptive athletes can compete at the highest level and commit their body to excellence among their able bodied peers.
Eric McElvenny didn’t move for about 15 seconds. The IED was brutally efficient and while the blood from his leg soaked through his uniform, he acknowledged he might soon be dead. A fellow corpsman on his team managed to reach him and jammed his knee into McElvenny’s femoral artery to slow the bleeding and bandage the leg, buying the time for a helicopter to carry him to a medical facility. In less than an hour, Eric made it from the battlefield into surgery where his lower right leg was removed. A whole new battle was just beginning.
It has been four years since Eric was in Afghanistan and he is still standing. In fact, he’s been running, swimming, and biking as well. The former Marine was sent a letter of encouragement by a friend in his battalion joking when he would run his first marathon. McElvenny decided to raise the stakes himself and started to look at Ironmans.
Before one runs, one learns to walk. Two months after losing his right leg, Eric wore a prosthetic for the first time. Then he learned to walk without crutches, just in time for his battalion’s return to Camp Pendleton in March 2012. Less than eight months after his amputation, he attended Challenged Athletes Foundation’s triathlon camp through Operation Rebound, a program for injured military.
Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) is a non-profit that funds grants to people with physical challenges for adaptive sports equipment, running prosthetics, coaching and competition expenses. These range from a hand cycle for a woman who wants to ride a bike with her children to a custom-designed hand for a rower who wants to make the Paralympics. Sports Chairs start at $2,500, while prosthetic limbs effortlessly break the $15,000 mark. The majority of CAF beneficiaries earn less than $25,000 annually, which leaves these pursuits largely unaffordable.
Fitness, health, and athleticism are not privileges; they are rights. Whether a physical challenge is congenital or the result of trauma, it shouldn’t serve as a barrier to pursue excellence. CAF distributed $3.5 million in grants to 1,709 adaptive athletes in 2015, eclipsing their previous year’s record of $3.1 million to 1,469 athletes. This support allows adaptive athletes to not only engage with their health and fitness, it creates an avenue for them to be successful and celebrate their ability.
For Eric McElvenny, a life-long athlete and Marine Captain who served multiple tours, the rediscovery of his own strengths proved integral.
Eric did his first sprint triathlon on Camp Pendleton that August. The next month he completed his first Half Ironman, finishing in a long and painful six hours 35 minutes. That October, he ran his first marathon; all this happened within a year of gaining a prosthetic leg.
He has now completed three Ironman races including the Ironman World Championship at Kona, Hawaii, eight half-Ironmans, and two marathons, and Eric’s times are only improving. Eric’s Ironman time is creeping closer and closer to falling under 11 hours. His half-Ironman PR is 5:06. Eric is making swift progress despite being a newcomer to the sport.
Ironman athletes understand that the competition is not just a race—it is a discipline. One must learn how to train, diet, figure out transitions, and become a gear encyclopedia, knowing as much as there is to know about bikes, shoes, and wetsuits. Having to not only understand but be able to train and race effectively with proper running and cycling prosthetics is a significant additional variable. Nonetheless, Eric continues to train and improve. His limb is constantly changing and his prosthetics are continuously adjusted as he redefines his limits.
The amputee world record for an Ironman is 9:57, set by Rivaldo Martins in 2005. Eric has his eyes set on that target, using it as motivation. He knows it won’t happen overnight. But he also knows it won’t happen at all if he doesn’t constantly strive for it.
Challenged Athletes Foundation’s mission is to provide opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics. CAF believes that involvement in sports at any level increases self-esteem, encourages independence, and enhances quality of life.
Eric is a powerful example of the success of CAF’s mission. He aims to be the best triathlete he can be. He knows he is strong and fast and works hard to maximize the gifts he has. Eric has rediscovered the confidence to not only race well but to live the rest of his life well. Once upon a time Eric lay on a hospital bed wondering how productive the rest of his life could be. Today, he continues to be a good father and husband. Eric also works as the assistant director for SDSU’s Troops to Engineers program. Finally, he speaks all over the country, particularly to other injured servicemen and encourages them to be active and look towards the future with purpose.
Training is still the variable that sets apart the elite; determination, dedication and discipline are still the ingredients to overcoming adversity. Adversity isn’t represented by a missing limb; it’s the finish line—the exact same finish line every athlete crosses, whether it be on two feet or one.