Freddie De Los Santos competes in the Time Trial at the 2019 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships.
Freddie De Los Santos is riding a fine line between his two lives.
As he races through quiet, countryside streets of Hopewell Junction, New York, 18 miles away from Hudson Valley on the southern edge of the state, he finds peace and quiet. Especially during the pandemic, training on the road has become more important as he glides into the 11th year of his new life.
In that one, he’s a Paralympic cyclist. He has one Paralympic Games appearance at the 2016 Rio Games and four world championships under his belt, and he’s eyeing next year’s Tokyo Games.
Then there’s his previous life, pre-2009. He wants that life to remain in the past. It is filled with memories — or flashbacks — of friends dying in wartime. That’s a life he’ll never be able to shake, even as he enjoys the life he presently has.
“I always feel like I’m still there (in war), it’s just weird,” he said.
As the calendar turns to October, De Los Santos will recognize some important moments from both lives. De Los Santos is among a small field of Latino cyclists on the U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Teams. Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct 15 and celebrates the history of Hispanic Americans and cultures, and it’s part of what De Los Santos called the beautiful month of October. Oct. 17 is his birthday, and three days later, he will celebrate Alive Day.
Alive Day recognizes the day De Los Santos was hit by a rocket in war. He was inspired to join the Army after the attacks on 9/11, and he served between 2002 and 2008 for the Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Oct. 20, 2009, when he was in Afghanistan, he was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, and the blast caused him to lose his leg. He was in the hospital for three years, and he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts as he struggled to cope without a leg.
In the hospital, he met a representative from Achilles International. Achilles International helps disabled people get involved with sport. The individual asked Santos if he wanted to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon. De Los Santos thought this was crazy. He was weak, and he had only one leg.
Later that day, he encountered Achilles International again. It was during a physical therapy session, and sure enough, he was convinced to sign up for the marathon. De Los Santos thought it would at least be worth trying.
Although the three-hour marathon felt strange and caused two straight weeks of pain, De Los Santos felt almost as if he was born again.
Now, every Oct. 20, De Los Santos and his family get together and have a nice meal with six to eight close friends. Santos will do the cooking — a thank you to his family and friends for their support — and he will make pasta, rice, beans, paella, a cake and maybe some Mexican food.
“It’s a very beautiful month, because I celebrate my birthday, but also life,” Santos said. “And I love it. Yes, I get sad because I lost some friends (in war).”
This year, De Los Santos said he is feeling stronger than ever before. With the COVID-19 pandemic, he has halted the sport-related traveling that often fills his schedule. It has led him to do more thinking than he would prefer, but being around his family is helpful. He also likes doing black-and-white photography and painting colorful, graphic images of feelings he is unable to articulate with words.
“I love painting,” De Los Santos said. “It’s a good way for me to decompress. It’s a good way for me to express what I’ve been through, and what I’m going through right now. I use it as a coping mechanism to deal with my PTSD and mental trauma.”
De Los Santos does have rough days, and he has constant flashbacks of his previous life. The athlete is grateful for Paralympic sports, and to serve as a role model for disabled Latinos looking to get into Para sport.
No matter where De Los Santos is mentally, he acknowledges how much he as grown over the past few years.
“You learn that there’s no limits,” he said. “When you bring God into your life and let God guide you, there’s nothing you can’t do.”