It was a cool, foggy morning when around 150 cycling enthusiasts gathered outside Ventura’s Marriott hotel, located off Harbor Boulevard, last weekend. John Wordin, the executive director of Ride 2 Recovery, a cycling fundraiser for disabled vets, was getting the group ready to set off for the last stint of the event, which would end at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Center 50 miles away.
This group of cyclists, though, is not the typical crowd of fast pedalers one would see whizzing down the bike paths of Ventura County. They are an eclectic bunch made up of men and women, white, black and everything in between, former and active military service personnel along with volunteers who raise money for the “wounded warriors.”
Judging by their sheer determination to complete the 460-mile journey from San Francisco, you would never know that any of them were dealing with a disability. Since much of the world tends to look for an excuse to quit or give up, this group goes beyond the term extraordinary, as many of them are handicapped, having lost a limb or two, endured a traumatic brain injury or other physical damage to their bodies.
“This program is about what you can do, and that limits are only in your mind,” said Vietnam vet, Jim Penseyres of Fallbrook, Calif. “You feel a lot of healing [on these rides], some more dramatic than others.”
Penseyres serves as a mentor for fellow servicemen and service women on the ride. Nearly four decades ago, he lost his left leg in a boobie-trap in a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea just two weeks before he was to return home. He recalled the time after he lost his leg, when he was advised not to be active or exercise.
“It was a different time,” he said. “The Veteran’s Administration was against physical exercise.”
Penseyres did almost everything contrary to what the doctors had advised, which included not getting his prosthetic leg wet. When they told him he couldn’t learn to surf again because it would be too strenuous, he dove in headfirst, or board first, and would show up back to the administration with water-logged prosthetic limbs every six months, pleading the fifth.
Although his doctors advised him otherwise, Penseyres understood the value of exercise — which is the intended focus of Ride 2 Recovery.
Wordin, a former pro-cyclist and Marine, began this fundraiser two years ago to promote good health, exercise and camaraderie. Wordin estimated this year’s Ride 2 Recovery Gold Coast Challenge raised around $100,000 that would be reinvested back into the various rides on the west and east coasts, to sponsor wounded active military and veterans. The money pays for bicycles, hand cycles, biking garb, hotel rooms, meals and just about everything in between.
Penseyres said that the rides are not only good for physical health, but for mental health. He spoke of an active military serviceman participating in the ride who had been deployed to the Middle East. Although back in the States now, he had been considering suicide even though he had a wife and family. After three days of cycling, he decided suicide was not an option.
“It is like the analogy of the two guys and the sand dollars,” Penseyres said. “Two men were walking down the beach at low tide, where hundreds of live sand dollars were left exposed. One of the men would pick up sand dollars and throw them back into the ocean. His friend asked, ‘What are you doing? It’s not like it is making a difference.’ The man responded with a sand dollar in his hand, throwing it into the ocean, ‘It makes a difference to that one.’ ”
And it makes a difference to someone like Army Capt. Chad Fleming, 36, of Alabama. Fleming joined the army in 1999 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Just 18 hours before returning home after being deployed to Iraq, he was on his last mission when he got caught in a firefight, losing his left leg to two hand grenades and a bullet wound. Fleming, who Penseyres said is as tough as nails, has been deployed twice since the accident.
Fleming got involved with Ride 2 Recovery in July of 2008. Although he had been preparing to ride a hand cycle, after meeting Wordin prior to the event while doing physical therapy for his amputation in San Antonio, Tex., Wordin promised to get him a bike. Through a surprising set of circumstances, Dallas Cowboys 1972 MVP Roger Staubach, who had heard of Fleming through Wordin, bought him a $1,500 all-carbon Scattante bike.
After two Ride 2 Recovery challenges, Fleming is now preparing to enter a marathon in New York City.
“Life is good and everything is great,” Fleming said.
With plenty more Ride 2 Recovery challenges to come, those participating in the events have come away with more than just memories of blazing down bike paths. New friendships have been forged, lives have been saved, hope has been realized, and life has taken on a new meaning — that losing limbs or enduring injuries means so little in the scheme of things.
To donate or participate in the next Ride 2 Recovery, go to ride2recovery.com.