August 19, 2013 11:10:19 AM
Can't is only a state of mind.
But when you're seriously injured, the doubts can be as big a hurdle to overcome as the physical damage to your body.
John Long has faced the fear and stared it down.
On Saturday, Long beat that fear for the second time in as many weeks and showed he is an inspiration to athletes everywhere by completing the second annual Possum Town Triathlon in Columbus.
Long, a C-7 complete quadriplegic from Louisville, received assistance from friend John Arnett and his brother, Tanner, to finish the 600-yard swim, 17-mile bike ride, and 3.3-mile run in 2 hours, 59 minutes, 44 seconds.
"When you first get hurt, you really don't have a lot going on," Long said. "I knew the sport would be tough, and I wasn't sure I could do it. I saw a YouTube video of a paraplegic doing it and I realized it is possible. I started getting the gear ready and progressed from there. I started swimming and everything I did was kind of hard. I would start swimming and think it was tough and ended up pushing through it and learning how to swim again. I got a hand cycle and a racing chair and learned how to do everything. I stay busy doing it. It is like a full-time job for me, and I am just starting out. I am blessed to be able to do it again. It feels good to get out there and feel like an athlete, too, and get to mix it up."
Long was injured Oct. 4, 2010, when the car he was riding in rolled over and struck a culvert. Long said his friend who was driving fell asleep. Initially, Long said he couldn't move his arms, but he returned to the gym after he was discharged from the hospital and began building strength in his shoulders and in his arms. About six months after the accident, he said he entered a 5-Kilometer race and competed in an every-day wheelchair.
Since then, Long has graduated to a hand cycle, which he used Saturday to complete the cycling portion of the sprint triathlon, and a racing cycle, which he used to complete the run. He said he is still learning and hopes he will be able to compete in the Half Ironman Triathlon next April in New Orleans. Ironman Triathlons feature a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles).
The Possum Town Triathlon was the second triathlon Long completed. Last week, Long and friend John Arnett, of McCool, competed in the Tri4Life in Brandon. Long completed that race in 3:10:37. The event features a one-third mile swim, a 16-mile bike ride, and a 5-K run.
"It was real tough," Long said. "I actually was like, 'Why am I doing this?' I finished and it was an awesome feeling."
Long credits Arnett and his brother, Tanner Long, for their help in helping him break down barriers. Arnett was with Long for the 600-yard swim, guiding him through the water and making sure he stayed afloat in his wetsuit and swim brace. From there, Arnett and Tanner Long had to help John Long change clothes and get him situated on the hand cycle. Most of the time they spent in the transition area focused on taping rods to Long's hands that he inserted into the slots of the apparatus -- in a similar location to where handlebars would be on a tradition bicycle -- he used to turn the cycle's wheels. Unfortunately, the tool on Long's right hand broke at mile No. 15, so the team had to stop and get assistance.
"Luckily one of the guys who was helping here -- I think it was a fireman -- had some tools and we fixed it up real quick and put it back on and kept going," Arnett said.
By the 3.3-mile run, Arnett said he had to dig deep to keep up with Long. He said they plan to do as many events together as they can.
On July 27, John Long and Arnett competed in the Heart O' Dixie Triathlon in 3:51:46. The event features a half-mile swim, a 27-and-a-half-mile bike ride, and a seven-mile run. The team of Long and Arnett completed the first phase in 29:52, the second in 1:33:01, and the third in 1:47:35.
Long did the swimming and running events, while Arnett did the cycling and the running events.
Arnett said it is "inspirational" and "humbling" to help Long realize what he can accomplish.
"Life knocked him down and he got back up and kept going," Arnett said. "He keeps going and it motivates us. I wish everybody could have a chance to watch him so they can feel the way we feel."
According to Apparelyzed, a website that provides spinal cord injury peer support, quadriplegia is caused by damage to the cervical spinal cord segments at levels C1-C8. Damage to the spinal cord is usually secondary to an injury to the spinal vertebrae in the cervical section of the spinal column. The injury to the structure of the spinal cord is known as a lesion and may result in the loss of partial or total function in all four limbs, meaning the arms and the legs. Quadriplegia is defined in different ways depending on the level of injury to the spinal cord. C1-C4 usually affects arm sensation and movement more so than a C5-C7 injury. However, all quadriplegics have or have had some kind of finger dysfunction.
Arnett has known John and Tanner for six or seven years. He said serving in a support role for Long in triathlons helped introduce him to triathlons, which has become a hobby he loves. It is even more satisfying for Arnett to remember how the accident impacted Long and how he has recovered mentally and physically.
"He is shining brighter now," Arnett said. "It was a process. At first, there was nothing really going on. It was just getting use to everything. Little by little, piece by piece, we started getting equipment and getting out there. Like he said, he is addicted to it. He and I are addicted to it."
Arnett said he didn't compete in triathlons or marathons before teaming with Long. He said they bicycled together for a half marathon in their first race. Since then, the "bug" has infected Arnett and Long and keeps them motivated in training so they are ready for the next stop.
Long is looking forward to getting faster and using better equipment. He thanks Boardtown Bikes, of Starkville, for helping him with his equipment. Without them and the support he receives from his brother and Arnett, he knows he wouldn't be able to realize a goal he thought of when he was in the intensive care unit in the hospital.
"It is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical," Long said. "You hear that at first and are like, 'What?' It really is true. You battle through it and you learn how do everything different. The beauty of it is you enjoy things a lot more. It make take me an hour to get dressed, but I am excited I am dressed and here. You amaze yourself every day with little goals."
"Mentally, it was fear for a long time. It looked pretty chaotic at first. Finally I relaxed my body and relaxed my mind and figured I would kind of float a little bit. I was trying to perfect a stroke. I kind of do a backstroke now, and I got that finally done. The racer I had done a good bit. Putting the racer in with the swim and the run was the tough part. It is a lot of strengthening my back."
Long said he and his team probably spent two days preparing for the Possum Town Triathlon. He said his brother and Arnett push him and he said he pushes them -- probably too much sometimes -- so he can "throw fear to the win" and compete.
"I am hooked," Long said. "It has got me. You just get where you get more competitive. You want to finish the first few times. Then you want to see if you can actually beat somebody."
But Long admitted it took a couple of months for him to lose the fear he had after getting injured. He said he heard all of the talk that he would never be independent again and wondered what he would be able to do with his life.
"When I first got injured, I was scared to turn the TV on," Long said. "It took me forever to learn how to get in my chair from the bed. Then you just figure it out.
"As for triathlons, there was the fear of the pool. I had probably 10 people out there watching me and I would freak out. Within a weekend, I just felt relaxed and now I can go out there myself and swim. It took months. It was a mental battle.
"Now I am completely independent, and getting out here racing shows other people that are injured or anybody that they can get out here and push and they can be real athletes. That is the key to being healthy."
Long has to take precautions because he doesn't sweat, so it is easy for him to overheat. Fortunately, the overcast conditions Saturday cooled temperatures and helped Long's body stay regulated. He said he forgets he is disabled while he is on the course and hopes his example shows others they can do anything they put their mind to.
"Now that I know I can do it, I am the most confident person in the world," said Long, who is married and has two children. "I feel like there isn't anything I can't do. Nothing. As long as you have the right prep and equipment, it is pretty much limitless as far as what you can do. It takes a little longer, but you can do it. I never thought I would be able to do a triathlon. When I was in ICU, I decided I wanted to do one. It took me a couple of years, but I just keep trying to push it and break barriers.
"I feel like I am a guy who is trying to push himself. If it inspires people, I am excited about it and glad. I just want to push my body and mind and keep healthy. I want to inspire people to keep moving. If you keep moving, it is the key to health and feeling good. I am in a wheelchair and I feel like I am 8 feet tall and I can walk again when I get through. It can do that for you because it is such a mental battle. You think, 'I can't do this' and you're out on the course and somehow your mind tricks you and you're back on the course next week and doing it again."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.