Freddie De Los Santos competes in road cycling at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Team USA Para handcyclist Freddie De Los Santos says he doesn’t always have the ability to verbalize the things he wants to say. De Los Santos, who competed in the road and time trial events at the 2016 Rio Games, feels more open expressing himself with a paintbrush or camera.
His art, which ranges from abstract painting to black-and-white photography, serves as vehicles for his deep emotions. His paintings have been exhibited around New York State, and some hang in VA Hospitals and private homes and offices.
De Los Santos, an Army veteran, was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his vehicle in October 2009 while serving in Afghanistan. His right leg was amputated above the knee, and he’s has been dealing with a traumatic brain injury, pain and the psychological aftermath of the incident.
His elite handcycling career, and his longstanding love of art, have been part of his path out of the darkness of suicidal thoughts and pain.
“I think both, being together, give me the outlets I need,” De Los Santos said. “My painting gives me the place for expression, the perspective to let others see the things that are inside of me. It keeps me attached to the past, but I don’t need to go back there. It lets me get the pain out and helps me move to a better future.
“When I am cycling, I am feeling a manhood, that I am still the same,” he continued. “I am still powerful. But I’m an amputee, and sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I look at myself and it’s hard not to say I hate myself. I am always in pain. My back, arms, some kind of pain. But when I get on the bike, that pain is gone emotionally, physically.”
De Los Santos has a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from City College of New York. He worked in that field before joining the Army in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He describes his painting style as colorful and intense. He mixes surrealism with the abstract, trying to tell a story that compels the viewer to consider his message. The bright colors are meant to catch the eye.
“I want people to stop and look at the colors, and then stay to see what I am saying,” the 51-year-old De Los Santos said. “I am telling the story of my pain, my fear, my joy, what I am feeling in my heart. It is my experience, in the form of the painting.”
Photography is a more recent addition to his creativity, as he is taking a few classes to upgrade his skills. He said he typically shoots nature, outdoors and people. He prefers black-and-white for his format, in an attempt to catch his audience’s attention in a way that differs from their everyday experiences.
“Think about when you have color photos or movies — you first get caught by the beauty of the colors,” De Los Santos said. “When you take the color away, and only have black and white, you force a viewing of things in a new way. The color does not get in the way of the true story. I like that a lot, because I can make people look and think about things in a different way from the usual. It is an important perspective shift.”
He hopes to soon exhibit his photography with his painting, to offer a powerful show of contrasts. Connecting the world, especially his family and friends, with his art has been an important form of communication.
“I think sometimes my friends look at my paintings and wonder what is going on in my head, like I am weird,” he said, laughing. “My family has joked why can’t I paint some flowers or something pretty. I wasn’t wandering in a garden — I was in Afghanistan in a combat theatre.”
These are all pieces to De Los Santos putting his life back together after profound trauma. His art provides a mode of expression. The handcycle training provides the adrenaline rush and excitement he remembers from being in combat. His faith deepened after the attack and his recovery, giving him hope. And his relationship with his family improved because he vowed to be more connected.
“To me, my disability has been a blessing,” he said. “Sometimes, when I say that, people look at me like I am crazy and say, ‘What do you mean?’ I am in the best shape of life. I travel. Before, when something bothered, I was mad. Now, I don’t think about it. I let it fly. I am more united to my family than ever before. I enjoy the company of my friends. I soak every energy out of life.
“I took life for granted before. Not now.”
Right now, he is training hard, hoping to be part of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. He spent the COVID-19 shutdown of last year training and working on his art. He also competed in a few able-bodied races in November and December in Florida.
“I see 2020 as a blessing for me, as I live in the woods of New York State, so I never stopped training,” said De Los Santos, who lives in Hopewell Junction, just outside of the Hudson Valley. “I got a new bike, so I got to get everything together with the right gears and the right wheels. I am looking forward to this year, even doing better than in 2019.”