In a little more than two hours, Mike Loura, a man who already has competed in more than 40 triathlons, added another to his completed list.
This time, however, he competed in the race as a para-athlete, one of eight in a sea of more than 400 racers at the 28th annual Dave Parcells Madison Triathlon on Sept. 7.
"I was doing triathlons prior to my accident," the 44-year-old Darien paraplegic said. "I wanted to get back into the sport." This was his first triathlon since his injury.
Five years ago, Loura was hit by a car while training on his bike for an Iron Man race. His back was broken, leaving him paralyzed from his chest down.
"Ever since then, I've been trying to get back into shape to get back into the sport," Loura said.
The triathlon included a half-mile swim in Long Island Sound, a 13-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run.
Last year, Loura joined the para-triathlon club at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, which was created in 2011 following a family bike ride for adapted athletes hosted by Gaylord and the Greater Hartford YMCA. Loura received treatment at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare.
"The biggest thing is that these athletes have overcome so many challenges and I think it's amazing that they can go out and show determination and commitment to compete in a triathlon," said Katie Joly, the program manager for the sports association at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, one of the programs that made the triathlon club a reality. The sports association provides adapted athletes recreational and competitive opportunities.
Getting back to a normal life is important following an accident, Joly said.
"The initial focus (after an accident) is being able to get themselves around and essentially functioning independently on a regular basis," Joly said. "Once they do that, they need to get back into their regular life."
In May, Loura got to work training for the August triathlon by swimming in a pool and using the hand cycle. Tackling the racing wheelchair was the toughest obstacle to overcome.
"That one took a lot more work and effort because it is very tippy and chances are you will fall in this chair," Loura said, adding that he was so focused on not falling that he never did.
On the day of the race, Loura woke his wife and two daughters at 3:30 a.m. to be at the site by 5 a.m. Loura did have some anxiety prior to competing.
"The swim is the hardest part for me," Loura said. "You get beat up in the water at the start time and get kicked easily. I had to worry about the currents and the waves. They were tough for me to get through.
"I'm pretty much a tugboat in the water," Loura said. "I have arms and everything else is lagging behind."
In 2011, the Greater Hartford YMCA collaborated with the Gaylord sports association group to put together a family bike ride for adapted athletes to promote the paralympics.
From there, Stacia Cardillo, the triathlon club coach, said the YMCA and Gaylord asked "What's next?" The Wheeler YMCA had a triathlon club and, in 2012, it incorporated the para-athletes from the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare.
Volunteers from the triathlon club train with the para-athletes all summer long leading up to the event, and through it form bonds and friendships, Cardillo said,
"It's so important (to race) because we want to make sure that people know their disability doesn't limit them," Joly said. "They can do anything they put their minds to. There are so many determined and committed individuals. What they've accomplished is huge."
Throughout the race, volunteers from the triathlon club swim, bike and run alongside the para-athletes.
But what's more inspiring, Joly and Cardillo said, is that during the race able-bodied athletes running past or alongside the para-athletes cheer for them and offer words of encouragement.
"The most amazing part was watching the athletes challenge themselves and do something they didn't think they could do," Cardillo said. "What's more is listening to every racer run by and all of them cheering and congratulating the runners. They all have something very nice to say and it brings a tear to your eye because you're so proud."
Cardillo has been working with the triathlon club at the Wheeler Family YMCA for five years. While she said she would love to see the program double from the 10 athletes it works with now, financially it's difficult. The club at the YMCA needs to borrow or lend the racing equipment, such as the hand bike or the racing wheelchair, to some of the athletes, including Loura. However, a hand bike can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 and a racing wheelchair can cost more than $5,000. The club receives funding from state grants and private donations.
"They worried for me in the water and they were worried for me out on the road," Loura said. "Once I crossed the finish line, they were all there taking pictures and screaming and laughing."
Loura dedicated the race to his Uncle Gus, who he said is fighting cancer.
"I wanted to let him know that no matter what happens, you can beat whatever obstacle," Loura said. "So I'm hoping that this will help him get through his ordeal."
The para-athlete division at the Madison triathlon is the first of its kind in Connecticut, according to Joly. Para-athletes will compete in other races, which don't include the added division. The Madison Jaycees altered the race course to accommodate the para-athletes, such as a separate transition space that is paved and not as cramped to allow for a change in equipment.
"We hope that other races will start to learn about this and start to offer accommodations for para-athletes," Joly said. The Hartford Marathon Foundation added four divisions for adaptive athletes and worked with local organizations to learn what the needs are for adapted athletes.
Loura hopes to continue racing in triathlons.
"So long as my body lets me do it," Loura said. "It's a good healthy lifestyle to be in and the people are really great."
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