Rob Jones won a bronze medal with Oksana Masters in rowing at
the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
A 10-kilometer race, a 10-miler, a half marathon, a mini triathlon, an Olympic distance triathlon, the Paralympic Games, and now? A 5,400-mile, six-month cross-country fundraising pilgrimage by bike. On prosthetic legs.
On the second day of Rob Jones’ campaign, the U.S. Paralympic bronze medalist rower, war veteran and double amputee took a midday break on Main Street.
Jones, 28, rolled into a gas station in Searsport, Maine, accompanied by his 17-year-old brother, Steve. Steve drives behind the cyclist at a meager 10-mph crawl in a U-Haul box truck, acting as a buffer. They filled up — with gas and pizza. Then the two met the owners, Bain and Rita Pollard, who opened up their nearby lakeside home.
Relying on the kindness of strangers is how Jones envisioned this trip when three years earlier the U.S. Marine combat engineer was lying in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He had been injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in Helmand, Afghanistan, in July 2010. Jones had spent many hours imagining what his new life would be like. He wanted to experience an adventure.
His recovery had already included relearning how to ride a bike.
“I thought that maybe cycling across America would be pretty cool,” he said. He also wanted to raise $1 million to aid veterans with challenges similar to his. He selected three organizations that had aided in his recovery to be the beneficiaries — Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and Ride to Recovery.
But before Jones would embark on that goal he decided to try adaptive rowing. He was still an inpatient when he started pondering what sport he could take up as a bilateral-above-the-knee amputee. Rowing was a Paralympic sport.
“If I was going to do a sport I wanted to do it at the highest level,” Jones said. “I knew rowing was hard. That’s another reason I picked it.”
Jones, who grew up on a small farm in Lovettsville, Va., began training in Washington, D.C., at the Anacostia Community Boathouse. Two years later, he would become a Paralympian with his partner Oksana Masters. In only their second international race, Team Bad Company earned a bronze medal in the trunk and arms double sculls at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the first U.S. Paralympic medal in the event.
Jones isn’t sure if he’s going to continue with competitive sports. He said he will decide his future in the coming months. His self-described options: a return to rowing, an attempt at flatwater kayaking, or a go as a stand-up comic. Jones was one of five picked to be in a documentary depicting the lives of the wounded veterans called Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor. It also was an opportunity for the participants to write and perform comedy. Last spring, the organization flew the group to Los Angeles to perform live stand-up at the Improv and the Laugh Factory.
Before his injury, Jones had never participated in a formal foot race. And he had only just started to get into mountain biking. But when he was asked by the medical staff in the physical therapy clinic if he wanted to try a triathlon, he could not refuse the challenge.
“When you get hurt as badly as me, you kind of want to test yourself to make sure you’re still capable,” Jones said. “Part of it’s that, and I’ve always been into challenging myself and testing the limits, and setting a standard for other people to follow.”
The Jones brothers began their adventure three weeks ago, which started in Bar Harbor, Maine, and is scheduled to conclude in Imperial Beach, Calif., south of San Diego, about mid-April. The goal is to bike 30 miles a day, about 3.5 to 4 hours. Most nights, Jones anticipates sleeping on cots they placed inside the used truck he purchased. Throw rugs add a little coziness to the metal home away from home, which carries a camp stove and toilet, supplies, personal items, books, and Rob’s bike when he isn’t riding. It also contains dehydrated food, two big containers of peanut butter and bread, energy bars donated by Bonk Breaker, powdered milk and water.
Jones pulled maps off the Internet for the trip. But the places they stop are varied and unplanned. The first night, they parked the truck at an abandoned building. Media coverage has resulted in people recognizing Jones and his truck, which is labeled with information about the journey. Vehicles pass them with approving taps of the horn.
It’s also resulted in charitable acts. Charlie Allen bought them dinner, filled their gas tank and paid for a night at a Holiday Inn. The Pollards put the two up in their home for a night, fed them and let them shower. Other supporters have surprised them with meals on the road, including a turkey pie dinner, donuts, sub sandwiches and more paid hotel stays. But otherwise, Jones has paid several thousand dollars out of pocket to finance the trip. To date, they have raised $26,084 toward their $1 million goal.
After he’s finished biking for the day, Jones returns phone calls, updates his website and Facebook page, and grants media requests.
Through Nov. 2, Jones had cycled 518 miles.
“I am starting to get fatigued,” he said. He has been having trouble with one of his prosthetic feet staying connected to the bike. He’s also taken a few tumbles. The prostheses make mounting and dismounting the bike a challenge, but the challenge is another one Jones is up for.
P.K. Daniel is a freelance sportswriter and editor based in San Diego. Her work has appeared in Baseball America, SB Nation, CBS Sports’ MaxPreps, and the U-T San Diego. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.