A Step Ahead: the IDF disabled veterans who completed the Ironman Triathlon
When they arrived at the finish line of the Ironman yesterday, it was hard to hide the excitement of the crowd who greeted them with loud applause -- IDF disabled veterans who lost their legs in battle, but don’t let any disability impact their lives
Among the athletes who reached the finish line of the Ironman race that took place in Eilat yesterday (Friday), six amputee IDF veteran athletes stood out, proving that no obstacle is too large for them to overcome. The six trained as part of the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) Strides Program, which was founded three years ago in order to support and advance IDF disabled veterans who take part in extreme sports.
The program unites dozens of IDF disabled veterans and then sends them on a trip to the “A Step Ahead” institute in the U.S., which creates unique prosthetic devices for amputee athletes, customized according to the athletes’ weight and chosen sports.
The cost of each prosthetic is between $20,000 and $100,000, and each participant receives up to two or three prosthetics, depending on their sport and type of amputation. During the trip, the disabled athletes undergo professional training with the help of the new prosthetic, which enables them to run for the first time since their injury.
Now, six of the athletes decided to compete together on a course that includes 1.9 kilometers of swimming, 91 kilometers of cycling, and a 21.1 kilometer run.
“We have the honor to assist these heroic warriors in breaking barriers and overcoming their disabilities, and I am sure they will have a lot of success in the Ironman,” said Colonel (Res.) Atar Dagan, FIDF’s representative in Israel.
Here are some of their inspiring personal stories:
57 years old from Ramot Hashavim, married with three children.
The injury: In 1978 during Operation Litani in Southern Lebanon, Nimrodi was a platoon commander in the “Shaldag” Unit when the platoon under his command found themselves in a face to face encounter with terrorists. During the battle, Nimrodi seemed to have activated an IED, and his leg was amputated above the knee.
“It took time to evacuate me,” remembers Nimrodi. “I remember that in the helicopter the doctors debated where to take me. One said I would not make it to Rambam Hospital because I lost a lot of blood. In the end they took me to Rivka Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, where they took all the terrorists”.
Nimrodi was unconscious for 72 hours. “When I woke up, I saw my parents in front of me with fallen faces,” he continues. “So I said to my mother immediately, ‘Don’t worry.’”
The disability: “I was twenty and a half at the time. I understood that life will never be the same, but I didn’t give it much thought. The real understanding came later on in life.”
After a rehabilitation period of three months, Nimrodi decided that he wasn’t going to give up on himself. “I said that when life gave me lemons, I would make lemonade.” He smiles, “Immediately after rehab I went alone on a hiking trip to the U.S. for six months. I handled the crutches alone. I never encountered any obstacles. I was never embarrassed to walk around with shorts and the prosthesis”.
The sport: Nimrodi testifies that he was always an excellent athlete. Even after he lost his leg, he looked for ways to continue doing sports. “At a pretty early point, I saw a picture of one of the Kennedy boys, who was injured and an amputee, standing on the top of a snowy mountain with ski equipment,” says Nimrodi. “So I said that if he can, so can I. I built myself a special ski, went up to the Hermon and I tried to ski. Of course, I crashed,” laughs Nimrodi.
Nimrodi never gave up on the dream to ski, or the dream to ride a bicycle and do a triathlon. Meanwhile, he occupied himself with swimming in the Beit Halochem and with academic studies. He began to work as an economic consultant for the Ministry of Defense until he traveled to the U.S. in 1995 as part of his job at Indigo. There, he was exposed to new technologies in the prosthetic devices. “In 2003, I did a triathlon with a regular walking prosthetic. I got something to tie it on to the leg so it won’t fall while I ride the bicycle,” he describes. “A year later, I did the New York Triathlon with special prosthetics I ordered, but they didn’t fit me. A few meters before the finish line, the prosthetic flew off. I stopped, put it back in its place, and crossed the finish line. Exactly like in the movies.”
When he completed the race, another competitor, also an amputee, approached Nimrodi and told him that the trick to participating in triathlons is to find a suitable prosthesis. He also recommended STEP AHEAD, which specializes in making prosthetics and customizing them individually to fit each athlete.
Nimrodi’s experience with sports prosthetics opened new interests and created more dreams that were just waiting to be fulfilled. Three years ago, he was approached by FIDF, who offered him the opportunity to assist in advancing the Strides Program. He gladly agreed.
Ironman: “Ironman Eilat is considered to be one of the most challenging competitions because of the route and the weather,” says Nimrodi. “I will ride 90 kilometers together with my wife and my youngest son, who are riding 180 kilometers. For me, the fact that I’m participating in a race with non-disabled athletes is the most important aspect of all.”
58 years old from Hod Hasharon, married with three daughters.
The injury: In 1985, during his service as a battalion commander in Givati, Gabai was injured during preparation for a mission and lost his leg below his knee. He prefers not to expand on the story of his injury.
The disability: “Right after the injury, I decided that I was going to remain in the army,” says Gabai. “Two months later, I returned to combat service with my prosthetic.” Ten years ago, Gabai was discharged with the rank of colonel.
“My motivation does not come from the desire to prove anything.” He clarifies, “I’d rather put the injury on the side. It is not what will change my lifestyle. I maintain a normal lifestyle. There is no site in the country that my daughters have not visited while I carried them on my back.”
The sport: “I always had a connection to sports,” says Gabai. “When I was discharged, I began doing extreme sports by mountain biking and kayaking. I began kayaking because I couldn’t run with my first prosthetics.”
Gabai took part in “Trans Alp”, an 8-day dirt bike competition in the Alps, which is 670 kilometers long and includes 21,000 meters of climbing. In addition, he took part twice in the longest kayaking competition in the world, with a distance of 740 kilometers.
“In 2012 I was offered to join the Strides program, and I was told I would receive a leg for running and a leg for riding,” adds Gabai. “I was very excited to run again.”
Ironman: “Six months ago, we were on a biking trip in New York when we decided to compete in the Ironman race. In addition to my normal training of 20 hours a week, we did a joint training session and we practiced the transitions.” He describes, “We have strong wills, but will is not enough. For this kind of sport you also need quality prosthetics.”
53 years old from Beit Oved, married with three children.
The injury: during the 1st Lebanon War, Peretz was a young combat engineering officer. In 1985, while trying to rescue a wounded soldier from a mine field, his equipment malfunctioned and Peretz activated a mine. His left leg was amputated below the knee.
During the evacuation, Peretz retained full consciousness and was airlifted to Rambam Hospital by a helicopter. When he arrived to the ER, the doctor asked him, while walking: “How is my walking?” Peretz was surprised by the question, but then the doctor told him: “I am an above the knee amputee.”
The disability: “Amputation is a limitation, but necessarily a disability”, claims Peretz. “‘Disabled’ has a negative connotation. I feel healthy, but with the limitation of missing a leg. The injury never limited me in any activity.”
The sport: Until four years ago, I smoked and never did sports,” Peretz surprises us. “Four years ago I stopped smoking and began to gain weight. Following strong recommendations by my wife and the kids, I understood that I have to do something with myself.”
Peretz joined a running group in which he was the only amputee. “I never had any intention to run long distances.” He smiles, “I began with walking. Over time I ran two full marathons and two triathlons.”
Ironman: “This is the first time that I’m taking part in a race with other amputees,” says Peretz. “We do everything like everyone else, with no exceptions, and it’s fun. Without the support of my wife and children, it couldn’t have happened. When there are appropriate tools to run with, and proper guidance, the sky is really the limit.”
Original article was puublished (in Hebrew) in the YNET News
website on 01/30/2015 and can be seen at...http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4619428,00.html