When Dan O’Connor left the Marine Corps after being severely wounded in Vietnam in 1967, there weren’t very many programs to support veterans like him. When he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, things got even harder. But, when he started racing hand crank wheelchairs, “it opened a whole new world for me,” Dan said. “A whole new world.”
And now, as the cycling coach for the Marine Corps Warrior Games team, Dan is opening that world to a new generation of wounded, ill and injured Service members.
“I’ve seen guys get in a hand crank and next thing you know they’re up on a bicycle, on two wheels, riding across the country,” Dan said. He shared the story of one retired Marine in particular, a double above-the-knee amputee, who will spend 60 days riding from San Francisco, Calif. to Virginia Beach, Va. later this summer. “Once they realize they can do this, they realize, ‘Wow. I can do anything.’”
In his position, Dan focuses on training Marines to use hand crank wheelchairs and recumbent bikes. Either type of cycle can be adapted to just about any type or severity of wound or injury. Even paraplegics and quadriplegics can ride a hand crank, Dan said; the cranks are just fitted so hands or prosthetics can be locked in.
Recumbent bicycles are ideal for Service members with balance issues caused by traumatic brain injury (TBI), Dan said, and can also be adjusted to accommodate any degree and type of back injury. A rider can be almost completely prone, if necessary.
Or, you can put the two together. One member of the Marine Corps team, Chuck Sketch, who lost both legs and his eyesight in his battle with cancer, rides what is affectionately known as the “Chuck Wagon.” This tandem-style bike is a combination hand crank/recumbent chair with the front rider pedaling in a recumbent seat and Chuck in the seat behind, cranking with a hand crank.
“There’s no limit to what you can do with these hand cranks and recumbents,” Dan said.
And that goes for the athlete as well as the equipment. Dan said getting involved in cycling and other adaptive sports is a way for recovering Service members to prove that they can still do everything they did before—and more.
“I tell them, ‘You’ve got long lives ahead of you. That amputation you’ve got is not going to slow you down,’” Dan said.
Even if they don’t become competitive cyclists, the freedom to just ride a hand crank wheelchair or recumbent bike around the neighborhood with their kids can change a Service member’s whole outlook on life. Being part of a team, being back in a unit, also helps warrior athletes connect with peers and feel a renewed sense of purpose and ability. Dan said after a week-and-a-half of intense cycling at training camps, you couldn’t wipe the smiles off those Marines’ faces.
“That is totally different from what happened in my day,” Dan said. “I mean, where do you find these kids? You blow all their arms and legs off and they don’t give up. They don’t quit. It’s inspiring.”