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Well: Triathlon for a Former Quadriplegic PDF Print E-mail
John Carson.John Carson
Well: Triathlon for a Former QuadriplegicMr. Carson completes an Ironman triathlon.

Finishing an Ironman triathlon, which consists of a a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon, is a remarkable feat for any athlete. But 30-year-old John Carson, who will retire from the sport after this weekend’s Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is no ordinary athlete.

Two years ago, Mr. Carson was training on his bicycle near his home on Long Island in New York when a sport utility vehicle smashed into him from behind. He remembers fading in and out of consciousness and waking up in the intensive care unit as a quadriplegic.

“When I was a younger guy, to me the thought of being paralyzed, I was the first person to say I’d rather be dead,’’ Mr. Carson said. “I remember waking up in the I.C.U., my wife being there, my mom and my family, and being so thankful for being alive.’’

Doctors offered little hope for recovery. The accident had injured his cervical spine. But within a week he began regaining limited use of his arms and hands, a development he says confounded his doctors. Still, Mr. Carson said doctors gave him little chance of regaining the use of his legs.

His family reached out to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation for advice about treatment and life after spinal cord injury. Mr. Carson was moved to Mount Sinai Medical Center’s spinal cord injury rehabilitation program in New York, where he learned to take steps while holding onto parallel bars, most of his weight supported by an overhead harness.

In November 2009, just four months after the accident, Mr. Carson attended a New York Times event that featured Lance Armstrong as well as the marathoners Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Deena Kastor. Using a wheelchair with his wife at his side, Mr. Carson talked his way back to the green room and met the athletes. He and Mr. Armstrong talked at length and later corresponded by e-mail. “I’ve met Johnny Carson!” Mr. Armstrong exclaimed, shaking Mr. Carson’s hand.

“It had always been a dream of mine to be in the same room with him and get to speak to him,’’ said Mr. Carson. “After my injury happened, I never let it settle in or felt sorry for myself. I looked to him, at how he fought a disease that could have and should have taken his life. I took on that mantra to live strong, to do everything possible to regain my life, whether it was in the wheelchair or at a higher level.’’

Mr. Carson continued his rehabilitation and made plans to complete a triathlon using a hand-powered bike and a racing wheelchair. He said he made the decision in part to prove to his family that “no matter what, I’m going to be O.K. I’m going to be me again. That’s how my training started.”

But slowly, amazingly, Mr. Carson began to walk again.

“Looking at my spinal cord and looking at the images, nothing I’m doing now should be possible,” Mr. Carson said. “They can’t say for certain why I recovered versus a person with the exact same injury who is still in a wheelchair.”

Mr. Carson returned to his job as an agent for the United States Customs and Border Protection department, although he now works in an analytical unit rather than in the field. Although he no longer needs a wheelchair, his spinal surgeon refers to him as a “walking quadriplegic.’’

“There is a lack of sensation,’’ he said. “Taking a step, I have to remind myself to lift my foot, shuffle my weight, have the heel strike the ground and roll onto the toe. It’s more mentally tiring than it is physically tiring. If my eyes are closed, I can’t tell where my legs are.”

Swimming also poses a challenge. He is unable to kick in the water and must rely on the buoyancy of a wetsuit and the strength of his arms to carry him through the water.

Despite these challenges, a year after the accident, Mr. Carson completed the 2010 Lake Placid Ironman in 14 hours 56 minutes, a respectable time for an able-bodied athlete. Before the accident, Mr. Carson had completed an Ironman in 10 hours 32 minutes.

Earlier this year he ran with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation at the Boston Marathon, finishing the race in 4 hours 40 minutes 6 seconds. He has raised nearly $20,000 for the foundation through his racing efforts.

This weekend he is taking on the Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, where he hopes to raise at least $10,000 for spinal cord research. But it will also be his last Ironman.

Mr. Carson’s injuries have changed the biomechanics of his running stride, putting more wear and tear on his hips and joints. More important, he says, is his desire to devote more time to his wife, possibly start a family and spend time volunteering to support others who have suffered spinal cord injuries.

“Racing used to be the most important thing in my life, but sometimes an accident like this makes you reprioritize,’’ said Mr. Carson. “This is a very selfish sport. I’ve done enough. That five or six hours I spend on a bike Saturday mornings, the run on Sunday, I want to take that time I’d be spending out there and put it to better use.’’

Mr. Carson says he’s not giving up his athletic pursuits entirely and may take part in bike races or other events, including a possible marathon swim around Manhattan. This weekend, you can track Mr. Carson’s progress by following racer No. 1294 through IronmanLive.com.

“I may do one a year to continue to raise money,’’ said Mr. Carson. “More important, I’m going to stay involved with the Reeve Foundation with their team events. My goal is getting the word out and trying to inspire other people and raising awareness that there are a lot of people who have suffered spinal cord injuries, but they’re getting out there and participating.’’

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