Cyclists en route from Ottawa to Washington

Last updated: June 28. 2014 12:40AM - 2159 Views
By - smocarsky@civitasmedia.com

Marino Libro, riding a recumbent cycle, leads a group of cyclists participating in the CanAm Veterans Challenge down West Market Street towards Public Square in Wilkes-Barre on Friday.
Marino Libro, riding a recumbent cycle, leads a group of cyclists participating in the CanAm Veterans Challenge down West Market Street towards Public Square in Wilkes-Barre on Friday.
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WILKES-BARRE — Some are blind. Some have artificial limbs. A few of them still can't sit with their back to a door because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they're on a nearly 800-mile bicycle and hand cycle trek to the nation's capitol.
And they all stopped in the Wyoming Valley on Friday to have dinner and catch some shut-eye.
Twenty disabled veterans from Denmark, Canada and the United States were joined by about 10 able-bodied vets to participate in the CanAm Veterans' Challenge — a two-week bike ride that started in Ottawa, Ontario and will culminate in Washington, D.C. on July 4.
World T.E.A.M. Sports, the organization collaborating with Soldier On Canada and Wounded Warriors Canada to put on the 766-mile ride, chose Best Western Genetti Hotel and Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre as a dinner stop, and the Hilton Garden Inn in Wilkes-Barre Township for the group's overnight accommodations as the cyclists pass through this part of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Amanda Salvo, Hilton Garden Inn sales manager, said the hotel is providing discounted stays and breakfasts and free drinks at the bar to the cyclists. “What they're doing is unbelievable; the amount of endurance and stamina they have to go 700-plus miles is remarkable. We're very honored and proud they chose to stay with us.”
The cyclists started trickling into Wilkes-Barre in small groups at about 2 p.m., each group riding at its own pace, and stopped outside Genetti's to take a break and wait for the rest of the cyclists to show up before following a police escort to the Hilton at about 3:30 p.m.
Bruce Hoegg, general manager at Genetti's, said the veterans could have had anything they wanted for dinner later that night, and the group decided on pizza, potato chips and light refreshments.
Rachel Tollett, Genetti event coordinator, said the free dinner was “the least we could do for people who put their lives on the line for us.”
“I think it's great,” hotel owner Gus Genetti said of the event. “Everybody's out exercising and they're making a statement, and I think it's wonderful they're stopping in Wilkes-Barre.”
'In a millisecond'
Van Brinson, president and CEO of Holbrook, New York-based World T.E.A.M. Sports, said the event gives the non-profit “a chance to let people with and without disabilities work in a team environment to accomplish a goal that most people would never take on themselves.”
“We're taking a team of Canadian disabled veterans, a team of American disabled veterans with a small support staff on basically an 800-mile bike trip. … I think it gives us a good opportunity to demonstrate to the public the capabilities of those people,” said Brinson, a 47-year-old retired Marine with 24 years of service under his belt.
Brinson, who is participating in the ride, has had multiple deployments to Yemen, East Timor and Iraq. He said many vets, after returning home, “miss the camaraderie … and I think that's probably one of the bigger things that events like this do for the guys who have those injuries — it puts them in a safe place around people who have been through what they're going through.”
Brinson said a lot of the veterans “were very physical, very athletic, kind of at the top of their game” before they became disabled. And unlike with a degenerative disease that disables over time, they went from being completely able-bodied to being disabled “in a millisecond … and that's a lot to deal with. Events like these allow them to get back into an active lifestyle and show them that sports and activities still can be part of their lives.”
It's also important, Brinson said, for people living in the towns through which the cyclists ride, “to see these guys in these active roles so they understand that just because somebody's got a disability, that doesn't mean they have to be tucked away and put off to the side. They can still be very active, very productive members.”
'People cheer you on'
One of those productive cyclists is Steven Baskis, of Verona, Wisconsin.
Baskis, who lost his sight and nearly died when an explosively formed penetrator bomb detonated roadside while he was escorting a general officer as part of a security detachment near Baghdad on May 13, 2008, said he “grew up on a bike,” but never owned a road bike or raced.
About a year and a half after his injury, he got into cycling to build strength as part of his recuperation. He got into long-distance riding when he decided to try to make the U.S. Paraplympic Cycling Team. Eventually, he acquired a tandem bicycle with help from the Veterans Administration and started riding and racing on the back seat, with a “pilot” on the front seat steering.
His pilot is his roommate, Victor Henderson, a Navy and Marine Corps veteran who does web design and photography for Baskis' non-profit company, BlindEndeavors.com, through which he documents how disabled veterans use technology to be athletes and to recover. He also speaks at high school and college graduations.
"I've been all over the United States growing up. To be able to ride over it, I get to feel it, hear it and experience it in a different perspective. It's a great honor to be part of this ride and to ride into our Capitol. I've been to the Capitol many times,  but never on the Fourth of July," Baskis said.
Another cyclist is Jens Sondergaard, 42, of Viboro, Denmark, who was paralyzed from the waist down when he was shot by a sniper in Croatia in 1993 while serving with the Danish Army as a United Nations soldier. He rides a recumbent cycle and uses his hands and arms to pedal.
“I think it's a great opportunity for me to get some exercise and meet some other veterans from other countries — on this trip, I met a lot of friends — and to show the population that even though you're paralyzed, you have opportunities in life,” Sondergaard said.
Sondergaard said the reception the team received in Wilkes-Barre made him “very happy. People … cheer you on the whole way.”
Cycling as therapy
Scott Bates, 48, of Littleton, Colorado, served in the Navy from 1985-88. He became disabled after a non-combat-related vehicle crash and began cycling as a form of physical therapy. He eventually joined a local cycling club.
“It was a huge honor to be considered and erase that mental stigma of being handicapped in your head. But if you can get past that and keep trying, it may take a while, but it's amazing what these people have been able to accomplish, all with varying degrees of disabilities,” Bates said.
“I think this is a really good opportunity to show people that you may not be the fastest or most talented, but if you're dedicated and stick to it, you can accomplish a lot over a relatively short period of time,” he said.
Marina Libro, 54, of Lanexa, Virginia, suffers with a laundry list of maladies after serving 22 years as a watercraft in the U.S. Army, retiring as a master sergeant. In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, she has had traumatic brain injury, rods in her neck, a “mystery” breathing virus that has attacked her heart and lungs, migraines, hearing loss and impaired vision.
Libro began cycling in 2009 as part of her rehabilitation. “It was finally something I could do, and do competitively. It was challenging,” she said.
She goes out cycling three times a week with a group from her local Veterans Administration hospital, which she helped to expand. “We're getting out into the community and getting the community involved with us.”
Because of her PTSD, Libro no longer liked being around groups of people. “But this got me out with people, people like me. … It made me comfortable again,” she said. “My PTSD is really tamped down a lot … Cycling has become my therapy. I come home a much tamer, saner person. And maybe some day, I'll be able to sit with my back to a door.”

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