Todd McIntyre, who served in the U.S. Navy for 27 years, had completed 75 triathlons, including seven ultra-distance events, plus 35 marathons, and had just qualified for his ninth Boston Marathon, before a life-changing accident on June 15, 2015.
A medical incident while diving on vacation in Aruba left him with cerebellum brain bleeding, which led to multiple surgeries and hospital stays; after months of care, he was first left in a coma before being diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. Unsure exactly what caused the incident, all of McIntyre’s voluntary muscles were paralyzed.
After months in the hospital and doctors repeatedly telling him he was going to die, McIntyre eventually moved home, and slowly progressed to walking and swimming.
In June, McIntyre raced a triathlon for the first time since his accident. He was one of hundreds of finishers from around the world at Leon’s World’s Fastest Triathlon in Northwest Indiana, an event held in support of active and retired military.
“It’s always a little frustrating to not be able to perform like you used to, however, I’ve been very fortunate that my recovery has been very good,” McIntyre said. “This whole experience has been a recovery effort. Just to be able to be on a race course was motivating for me in itself.
“My doctors can’t predict what my limits will be, but if you ask me, my goal is to get back to full marathons and long-distance triathlons.”
The family-run Leon’s Triathlon has been held annually since 1983 with a rich history of honoring military veterans. The race is now coupled with the two-day Dare2Tri Injured Military Camp, which brings in more than 30 war veterans who have either been wounded during or after their service and are using triathlons to reacclimatize themselves.
Some are extremely competitive; others are strictly trying to make it to the finish line.
But they all share the same motto:
“I’ve never given up on my country, I’ve never given up on myself, and I’m not going to give up now,” said Race Director Leon Wolek. “They don’t give up. Their mindset is: ‘I want to make it to the start line, and once I make it there, I am going to finish this thing one way or another. You want to talk about emotion out on the race course, it’s unbelievable. How one person can inspire so many people, it’s just amazing.”
Everything about the event is geared toward welcoming the participating wounded veterans — from 2,000 American flags lining the course to the police and patriot guard escorting the Dare2Tri athletes from their hotel to the race venue.
During July’s Warrior Games, the organizers of Leon’s Triathlon and the Dare2Tri Injured Military Camp were honored at Chicago’s Soldier Field during the Warrior Summit, recognizing how they used the power of sport to better the lives of America’s veterans.
“You realize how important sports are to a multitude of things,” Wolek said. “When you go through a very serious injury in battle, and then you’re going through multiple surgeries and things that we can’t even relate to, sometimes you get in an area where you start to retreat. When you start to retreat, that’s not a good place to be going. But what happens is they’re trying to figure out ‘How am I going to make this change?’ I don’t have my leg. I don’t have my arm. I can’t see. How am I possibly going to go back into my community and get integrated? And basically, people have been saying sports are the answer.”
For 45-year-old Candice Caesar of Fresno, Texas — a U.S. Army veteran who was injured after her service — that was exactly the case.
On Dec. 5, 1999, Caesar was involved in a motor vehicle accident. She skid on black ice, and the passenger behind her, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, flew right into her. The paramedics, believing the vehicle could blow up at any moment, destroyed the windshield and pulled Caesar right through it. But in doing so, she suffered a spinal-cord injury that paralyzed her entire right side.
In time, Caesar gained some movement on her right side — she’s now able to open and close her hand — and a couple of years ago she was looking for a way to remain active when her feet were giving her problems during half-marathons.
A friend suggested triathlons. But with just one functioning arm and leg, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to swim or cycle.
So, naturally as one does these days, she turned to Google.
That’s when she found paratriathlon.
She began teaching herself everything should could about the sport. Seeing Melissa Stockwell — the first female American soldier to lose a limb in active combat — win bronze at the Rio 2016 Paralympics ultimately inspired her to sign up for the Dare2Tri Injured Military Camp and Leon’s Triathlon, during which she had the opportunity to meet Stockwell in-person.
“Paratriathlon and para-sports are up-and-coming,” Caesar said. “When I broke my neck 18 years ago, I didn’t even know this existed. I wanted to get out and get moving, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who to talk to or contact. But in today’s society, with social media and whatnot, you’re able to just Google and find other avenues and organizations that do this so you can get out and get moving.”
Through this summer’s events, participants such as Caesar and McIntyre established camaraderie with fellow veterans and motivated others with similar circumstances to compete next year.
They’ve proven that sports offer the power of healing.
“When (veterans) go out in public, a lot of them have invisible wounds,” Wolek said. “At the end of the day, if they didn’t have the option of sports, some of them might become a causality of what we now refer to as ‘those two dozen who every 24 hours take their lives.’”Learn about paratriathlon and how to get involved on usaparatriathlon.org.