Freddie De Los Santos competes in the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
When the country’s top Para-cyclists ascent on Minneapolis later this month for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, 16 of the 56 registered participants will have represented the country in a different way — through the military.
Among that group, eight are active on the U.S. national team, while the others will no doubt be looking to join them.
Already, their feats have awed even their fellow non-military teammates.
“I love spending time with those guys, I always learn so much, it’s cool to see their drive to succeed and the way that they’re able to do it, is really inspiring and it’s awesome to see,” said Cody Jung, who himself is going for his first Paralympic Games this summer in Tokyo.
The 15 registrants with a military background are David Berling, Michael Davis, Tom Davis, Freddie De Los Santos, Will Groulx, Shawn Morelli, Steven Peace, Kyle Pitman, Francis Reilly, Oz Sanchez, Jennifer Schuble, Ryan Sykes, Chester Triplett, Christina Truesdale and Erin Welsh. Here's a look at six of the national team cyclists among them.
Davis is a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who had to have his left leg removed after an improvised explosive device exploded and flipped over a Humvee he was riding through Ramadi, . Davis picked up cycling in 2012, six years after his injury, and four years after that made his Paralympic debut in Rio, where he narrowly missed out on medaling with a fourth-place finish in the road race. He has won numerous marathons as a , including a record seven Detroit Marathons.
Freddie De Los Santos
It’s hard not be enthralled by the story of De Los Santos, a Dominican Republic native who moved to the U.S as a teenager and lost his right leg while serving for the Special Operations Command for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. After spending three years in a hospital battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts, De Los Santos began competing as a cyclist after meeting someone through Achilles International, an organization that helps connect disabled people with sports. He made his Paralympics debut in Rio in 2016, competing in both the road race and the road time trial.
Featured in a 2017 NBC News report, De Los Santos told the network he was inspired to join the military after witnessing the September 11 terrorist attacks from where he lived at the time in Staten Island. De Los Santos told NBC: “A lot of people join the military for different reasons. I joined it because it was from my heart, it was something, I wanted to do it.”
One of Team USA’s most decorated Paralympians, Groulx is in line for his fifth Paralympics — and second as a cyclist — as he bids to add to his collection of six medals, which includes a pair of golds. Groulx competed in wheelchair rugby, winning a gold and a pair of bronze medals from 2004 to 2012, before transitioning into cycling ahead of the 2016 Paralympics. In Rio he doubled his medal total with a gold in the road race and silvers in the road time trial and road mixed team relay. Groulx served for six years in the U.S. Navy until 2001, when he suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down. Groulx, who was born in South Korea, also owns 16 world championship medals, and was a college volleyball player at the University of Tennessee before joining the Navy.
Morelli is one of the most prominent names in U.S. Para-cycling while still being on a rising trajectory after a glittering Paralympic debut at Rio at the age of 40 in which she earned two gold medals, including the first of the competition for Team USA. A former engineer officer in the U.S. Army, Morelli suffered spinal damage, brain trauma and left eye blindness in 2007 as a result of an Afghanistan. Between the road and the track, she has already 16 world championship medals, 12 .
Sanchez earned a gold and a bronze in his first two Paralympics before notching a silver and a bronze in Rio in 2016. Prior to his cycling career Sanchez was with the U.S. Marine Corps for six years, as part of Special Forces unit, and was in the process of joining the Navy SEALs before sustaining a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down. He is considered one of the sport’s greatest athletes. Sanchez was featured in the 2009 “Unbeaten” as one of several riders chronicled negotiating 267 miles through Denali National Park.
Schuble set a world record in winning gold in the track time trials in her Paralympics debut in Beijing in 2008, and she’s since added four other medals over her three career appearances, to go with 18 world championships medals. She excelled in numerous sports in high school and during her time with the United States Military Academy in West Point before two separate brain injuries led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Both Schuble and Morelli spent time at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama, the nation’s oldest military junior college.