The Boston Marathon bombers claimed at least three lives. Their attack also took pieces of many others, literally—people lost arms, legs and feet in the blast, or had ruined limbs amputated afterward. If those victims are wondering what they can do now, here's a suggestion. In a few months, they can go outside and wave to Rob Jones.
This is an article from the April 29, 2013 issue
A Marine veteran, Jones lost both of his legs above the knee to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. He is now a totem for other amputees who may believe their athletic lives are over. In October, wearing prosthetic limbs, he will ride his bike from Bar Harbor, Maine, through Massachusetts, down to Virginia, then take a right across the country to San Francisco and finally down to San Diego. The journey is more than 4,500 miles, and Jones thinks he will need from four to seven months to complete it.
Jones, 27, won a bronze medal in rowing with teammate Oksana Masters in last summer's Paralympics (SI, Aug. 27). Now, when he trains for his cross-country ride, he carries his bike to his car, puts it on the rack, drives to his chosen path, changes to his cycling prostheses, removes the bike from the rack, mounts it and rides. He does it all with no assistance.
His primary mission is to raise $1 million for charity: the Semper Fi Fund for injured Marines; the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, which assists injured members of the military and their families; and Ride 2 Recovery, which helps wounded veterans rehabilitate through cycling. (You can donate directly to these causes at RobJonesJourney.com.)
Jones is doing it for another reason too: Because he can, and he wants people to know it. "I just want people's reaction when I'm doing it to be: 'Wow!' " says Jones. "I want people to say, 'If this guy, missing these body parts, can do something that challenging....' "
The marathon survivors will soon learn that being an amputee is not what it used to be. Jones recently ran a half-marathon and says that amputees can compete as well without legs as they would with them. "Oh hell, yeah," Jones says. "I wasn't even a runner before, and I just ran 13 miles. You just have to make a conscious decision that you're going to do it. It's a different running motion, but you can be just as speedy."
How speedy? Well, Paul Martin, a Massachusetts native living in Colorado, lost his left leg below the knee in a 1992 car accident. At the time his orthopedist told him one of the few sports he could play was softball, so he bought a glove. He never uses it. Instead Martin, 45, runs marathons and competes in triathlons. He has run six Boston Marathons. His best time was 3:24:49, in 2004. He has also done 10 Ironman triathlons. But the most gratifying aspect of his performance is that, with every year, he stands out a little less. He remembers being one of three amputee athletes at a 1996 half-Ironman. At the same race now, "there's a couple hundred that show up with disabilities," he says.
What changed? First, technology. Martin ran his first marathon on a prosthetic foot designed for walking. A few years later he tried a running prosthetic for the first time. "As soon as I put on a running foot, I was like, 'Holy moly, this is fantastic,' " Martin says. He also says that prosthetic knees have progressed "light years since 1992."
Word has spread. The Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit group based in San Diego that helps people with disabilities participate in sports, began in 1994 by raising $49,000 for the San Diego Triathlon Challenge. Last year CAF distributed 1,200 grants totaling more than $1.9 million.
For many amputee athletes, the physical challenge is not as daunting as the mental and logistical hurdles. They have to relearn how to run or bike. They also must find the proper equipment, which can be difficult and costly—medical insurance often covers walking prosthetics but not athletic ones.
First, though, they need to believe. Jones says that even in his early days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, "I never really doubted I'd be able to figure it out." He says being an amputee "exaggerates your personality. If you're positive, you'll be superpositive. If you're a cynic, that's not a good place to be as an amputee."
If you're a cynic, you will be amazed by the sight of Rob Jones riding his bike across the country he served. He hopes "to show what we can do as a country if everybody is together on something. If we're all together on me getting across the country, we can raise this money, no problem. There are 300 million of us."
And if you are positive, you will believe in Paul Martin's latest idea. He wants to organize a team of 176 amputees, called Team Run Again, to compete in next year's Boston Marathon, in honor of the 176 people injured by the bombing, "and make a statement: We can not be stopped."
Two decades ago, finding 176 amputee marathoners to run in Boston would have seemed like an impossible dream. Now, it sounds like a plan.