My day with the Challenged Athletes
Special to the LightOn Oct. 22, I pulled into the parking lot at La Jolla Shores to be a part of a very special event. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t late for the arrival of my friend “Mag” who had ridden a tandem bicycle from San Francisco to La Jolla — 620 miles in seven days. He was in good company, sharing the tandem with an active duty Special Forces operator who happens to be missing the lower part of his left leg.
Friends and family began to gather on the lawn. Supporters of the Challenged Athletes Foundation set up tents and laid out food and refreshments for the riders and the rest of us who came to cheer. The wonderful thing about the scene was that there were children from 4 years old to adults in their 80s, many of whom had prosthetic limbs, and the atmosphere was nearly ecstatic. The sun was shining; kids played with balls or their dog; a Marine, in a wheelchair, flew a kite without a care; Niko, a brain-injured Marine, carried a guidon with a banner cheering on the challenged athletes of every military stripe.
I had two friends in the race: “Mag,” aka Master Sgt. Gilbert Magallanes (U.S. Army Ret.), and Dave Vigil who has ridden every year in the great event. But I had waited months to finally meet Gil Magallanes, whom I had never met in person until he crossed the finish line.
While I was walking across the country for the Fisher House Foundation earlier in the year I wrote a nightly blog post called Walk for Warriors. The blog and the walk were in support of the families of wounded service men and women. One night I wrote about a courageous Green Beret whom I had read about in “The Only Thing Worth Dying For.” In the book, “Mag” had just carried a 200-pound ruck sack full of his own gear and communication equipment for the team. It was a dangerous mission in 2001. His A-Team’s cargo was one Hamid Karzai. “Mag” was critically wounded by friendly fire. He has managed, through immeasurable determination, to come back, to compete, to forge his life.
On a gale-tattered night in eastern New Mexico, after posting my blog for the day, I checked on comments made by my few followers. To my chilled surprise, “Mag” a character from the book I was reading, had left a comment on my blog! My chills were not from the wind. I looked around as if someone could answer my question, “How did this happen?”
He encouraged me with some very kind words and left me with a bit of wisdom I felt in my bones again at the park. He said, “John, you can do this. The mind is always stronger than the body.” Almost every day on the rest of my 2,140-mile walk from Camp Pendleton to Fort Benning, Ga., I repeated Gil’s words of strength. I can call him Gil now because he is no longer a character in a book but a man I am lucky to call my friend.
As the riders neared the finish line under the inflated arc, the announcer had us spectators in a rip-roaring frenzy of excitement. Before Bill Walton, Jeff Jacobs and the rest of the riders came drifting across the finish line, a joyous 7- or 8-year old boy, with two prosthetic legs, sprinted under the arc with a contagious smile. The place erupted with enthusiastic applause.
As soon as Dave crossed the finish line I met up with him to say, “Job well done.” He quickly showed me where to find Gil.
I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey man. Do you know where I can find Gilbert Magallanes?” He turned around laughing and shook my hand. “John Cote’. Hey, it’s good to meet you finally.”
I also met Gil’s wife Sherry with whom I had carried on a dialog throughout my adventure. It was my pleasure to spend time eating and talking with soldier Keith and his wife Tianna, and Green Beret Chris and his wife Dana.
The table where I sat was probably like any other table that day in that at least two or three people at the table had a prosthesis or a brain injury. Keith is in the midst of his treatments at the V.A. He has serious traumatic brain injury caused by close contact to several IED explosions while on combat patrol. Chris lost a leg in combat but remains an active duty Green Beret. And like almost everyone else at the event, Chris, Gil and Keith had wives and family to help them get through the challenges that continually face them. Knowing what I knew of their wounds, I was amazed to hear them talk so admiringly of Bill Walton’s courage in the aftermath of his multiple surgeries and chronic pain from years on the championship basketball courts.
I have to say that that day was one of the best days I have ever had. I was among normal everyday folks who had stood up to so much adversity with grace and unpronounceable courage. The whole park was rife with happy, competitive, successful human beings of all ages and hues. I tip my hat to all the challenged athletes and those who support them and sponsor them. As one old soldier once told a lonely old hiker out on the wind swept steppes of New Mexico, “The mind is always stronger than the body.” I saw those words in practice that day.