Disabled athletes should inspire us

Disabled athletes should inspire us

Carrie Finale of Pacifica, a member of Team PossAbilities and a competitor in the handcycling competition at this weekend’s Redlands Bicycle Classic.

REDLANDS — To those of us with four healthy, functioning limbs, these cycles might look funny or weird at first glance. They’re long, low to the ground, meant for the rider to recline and not sit upright, and can be propelled by the hands just as well as by the feet.
Maybe we’re the ones who should take a closer look.

The handcycling competition at this weekend’s Redlands Bicycle Classic is considered a preliminary to the main men’s and women’s events, a sideshow. But the competition is just as intense, maybe even more so.

After all, consider what these athletes have gone through to get here.

Greg Tyler, 23, lost his left arm and nearly died in a motorcycle accident four years ago. He now competes in triathlons in addition to bicycle races.

Fermin Camarena, 58, suffered a stroke in 2003, was in a coma for 30 days, remains paralyzed on his right side and uses a cane to get around. When he races, he dedicates his efforts to others. He wore a temporary “TF” tattoo on his left calf Saturday to honor a woman named Teresa Foster, a cancer patient.

Carrie Finale, 37, suffered a spinal cord injury 15 years ago in a car accident and now is confined to a wheelchair, though “confined” probably isn’t the most accurate term. An athlete before she was injured, it took her nine years to discover handcycling, and to rediscover what was in her soul.

“My first handcycle ride, I went down the road, felt the wind in my hair again, my heart rate went up and I was sweating,” she said. “And I said, ‘I think I’ve found my sport again. I think I’ve found the athlete in me again.’

Each of the more than 30 handcycling competitors at Redlands has found the motivation to deal with disability through sweat and effort. Through such very public efforts, each offers similar motivation to others, the able-bodied as well as the physically challenged.

“Losing a limb is like losing a loved one,” said Pedro R. Payne, manager of the PossAbilities program at Loma Linda University. “It takes some grieving. But eventually you get healed, you get better, and then you start giving back. That’s when we see them thrive. Then we can’t hold them back.”

PossAbilities is a nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitation and support, both emotional and financial, for the disabled and for their families. The organization sponsors the Classic, and its Team PossAbilities provides a vehicle for competition in not only cycling but triathlon, quad rugby, wheelchair basketball and whitewater kayaking. Camarena and Tyler, both of Mission Viejo, and Finale, of Pacifica, are all members of the cycling team.

“If it wasn’t for Team PossAbilities … it opens so many horizons, opens doors,” Camarena said. “It’s a whole new world.
“I go to Saddleback Junior College, and we’ve got so many people with strokes and now they’re getting involved. I’m not a mentor. They inspire me as much as I inspire them.”

Consider that while the handcyclists had the run of the mile course for Saturday’s Criterium through downtown Redlands, the crowd was dotted with spectators in wheelchairs, cheering them on.

“We come out here and there could be 30 of us racing, but we see 100 or 150 people that are disabled (among the spectators),” Tyler said. “I know they all see that if we can do it, and a lot of us are hurt worse than them, they can do it.”


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Jim Alexander