The last time Blair Reels Jr. rode a bicycle was when he was in college. That was before he joined the Army, before he was in Iraq and before a car bomb hit the Humvee he was in while he was in the gunner’s hatch. But this past Monday, Blair, an Army Veteran from Albany, New York, rode a bike for the first time since his college days.
Just shy of 30-years old, Blair had been very familiar with bikes in the past—he was a former BMX (extreme bike racing) competitor with little fear of the danger that the sport involved. However, it took Blair’s coach, Nell Schmitz, two years to convince him to attend the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic (NVSSC). This year she succeeded. “He said he never thought he would be back on a bike,” Nell said.
But that changed quickly when his team, Apollo, started the overcast morning at Tidelands Park where the cycling event was being staged. Both Apollo and Team Neptune were the first participants of the NVSSC to cycle. After fitting participants with adaptive bikes and making the needed adjustments and helmet fittings, participants went out for a 16-mile ride of bay and ocean views under the Coronado Bay Bridge and all the way down the Silver Strand.
The ladies of the Neptune Team, Cindy Ohara, Carolyn Williams and Babette Peyton were all first time participants at the NVSSC as well. Cindy, a Los Angeles Navy Veteran and former Army Reservist didn’t think she could do it but in the end, the soft-spoken Veteran admitted it gave her a feeling of freedom. She also completed the full 16-mile track. Carolyn decided that the event has motivated her to start bicycling again when she gets home. And Babette…well, if smiles could light up the night, Babette Peyton would be leading the way…on a bike. From Chicago, Babette who uses a wheelchair, is just starting to get involved with adaptive sports. If you heard a bell ringing on Monday afternoon for about 10-minutes, that was Babette after making it up the rock wall using only one hand.
First time participant Aaron Matthews, a Navy Veteran from Fond du Lac, Wis. just discharged six months ago, is an ambulatory incomplete quadriplegic with severe nerve and muscle damage in one arm. On the Apollo team, Aaron was the first participant to return from the ride. “I did 16.92 miles in an hour and 16 minutes,” he added. Aaron’s winning ride was in a recumbent foot cycle, three-wheel bike.
Neptuneites Evans Gilmore and Tyree Spraggins also went the full 16-mile trip.
When the teams were heading back to the buses, Blair was clearly charged up from the ride. For him, the best part may be yet to come when he goes home and shows the rest of his family that he can now ride with them. “It’s really important to me that my niece and nephew see me ride a bike again.” According to his coach Nell, “He told me this is the best day of his life that he’s had in a long, long time.”
That’s what the Summer Sports Clinic is all about.
By Susan Fishbein, Public Affairs Specialist, Los Angeles, California