Just back from a deployment in April 2008, Navy hospital corpsman Gabriel George went out for a motorcycle ride one night off base in Jacksonville, Florida.
The driver of a car making a U-turn pulled in front of George, causing an accident that resulted in horrific injuries. George suffered two fractured vertebrae, bruised and collapsed lungs, a broken collarbone and scapula, six broken ribs, a traumatic brain injury and paralysis on his right side. He was on a ventilator and in a coma for three weeks.
The fact that he'll be competing in Leon's Triathlon today at Wolf Lake Park is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, a motivating force for race founder and director Leon Wolek.
"A lot of disabled veterans use triathlons as a means to cope with their challenges," Wolek said. "What they've done is an inspiration. There are absolutely no words."
Getting back in the game
A Texas native, George returned to Jacksoonville two years ago. While he has recovered from many of the injuries, he remains without feeling in his right arm from his fingertips to his shoulder over nine years later.
"I was in a lot of pain, but I wanted to be able to do something," he said.
A basketball player in high school, the 6-foot-7 George figured his days as an athlete were done until he was introduced to the Wounded Warriors program at a rehabilitation center and learned about adaptive sports. Eventually, he was able to start cycling and competed in races.
"It was like being back on a motorcycle again," George said.
As he looked to continue ramping up his activities, he found out about Dare2Tri, a paratriathlon club that serves youth, amateur, injured service members, and elite athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments. The Chicago-based organization conducts training camps open to any injured military.
"I wanted to learn how to swim and I figured this was the best way to do it," George said.
Dare2Tri conducted a camp Friday and Saturday in the Region in association with Leon's Triathlon today in Hammond.
Giving back to the 1 percent
Leon's Triathlon dates back to 1983 at Hobart's Robinson Lake. It has long served as an event to honor members of the armed forces, the reason it earned the title, "America's Race." Wolek grew up next door to the Hobart American Legion, which was named for his father, Paul.
"It's real personal," he said. "I listened to the stories. I heard about the sacrifices. I was able to see the incredible depth of friendship they had. It was so genuine, so authentic. They would do anything for each other and didn't care about getting anything back. I learned so much from my dad and mom. They emphasized how fortunate we are and how grateful we should be to the 1 percent of the country that protects the other 99 percent for the lifestyle we enjoy."
In 1996, Wolek took his appreciation another step by hosting one of the first military championships for triathlons. Three years ago, he forged an association with Dare2Tri. "Leon has a huge heart for veterans," Dare2Tri Executive Director Keri Serota said. "I've done events all over the country with race directors, and I wish there were more people like Leon. It would make my job a lot easier. His race has always had a military focus. It made sense that we tie our camp to it. It's such a wonderful production."
The previous Dare2Tri camps included biking, running and equipment fitting. It was expanded this year to include swimming. Munster High School provided use of its pool Friday and an open water swim was held Saturday at the Wolf Lake race site.
"(Dare2Tri) is an incredible organization," Wolek said. "They had a vision and I was saying yes without even knowing what I was saying yes to. We're human beings who shared a passion. Geographically, it was a perfect storm. It started out very modest and has grown like a baby in front of our eyes."
As of midweek, Wolek estimated that more than 40 disabled veterans from around the U.S. will be among the field of nearly 500 triathletes, and more were reaching out to Dare2Tri about it. Not that the tireless Wolek needs an energy boost, but the inspiring stories certainly could provide it. He vowed to make sure every last-minute detail, from food to lodging to patriotic displays on the course, served as a display of respect.
"We can't disappoint them," Wolek said. "I'm just so honored and privileged to be involved. You can't have a major production unless you have a massive network of support. First and foremost, it's an opportunity for Northwest Indiana to show how much they care about veterans through their actions in producing a world-class event. Everything else is secondary."
George has never done a triathlon before, but is excited for the challenge.
"I haven't run since the accident, but I'm the type that will try anything at least once," he said. "I'll give it the best I got."