March 25, 2013 — By Jen Benepe
Damian Alfonso, the Cuban cyclist who made headlines when he qualified for the 2012 cycling event at the Paralympics –and then came in 12th overall in his class, will be recruiting more disabled athletes in Cuba.
“This is about Damian giving back,” said his long-time American friend and advocate, Tracy Lea who first discovered the cyclist on a sports trip to Cuba in 2000.
Though Americans are still forbidden from traveling to Cuba with American passports, there are exceptions, among them traveling to compete in sports events.
Dick Traum who started Achilles International in 1983, said the new Cuban chapter will hopefully attract both cyclists and runners who will then be invited to New York City on June 30 to run in the Hope and Possibility race 5 miles around Central Park.
“Damian is a fantastic athlete, and he is the perfect role model for other Cuban athletes who are disabled,” said Traum.
Traum who is disabled himself and uses a hand crank to cycle in Central Park, said the June event was started in honor of Achilles board member and Central Park Jogger, Trisha Meili, who sustained traumatic brain injury when she was assaulted and raped during her daily run in April 1989.
Meili, who eventually recovered from her attack went on to be a spokesperson for people with disabilities who are in sports.
Over time Alfonso has received help from the Achilles Foundation, partially enabling him to come to the United States to compete, as well as to receive free medical help from the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction and the New York University Langone Medical Center.
A kite lover at the age of 13, Alfonso tried to disconnect a lost kite from a power line using a metal pole, and was electrocuted. ‘The electricity blew his arms off, his face off: they had to scrape him off the ground,” said Mike Fraysse, previous president of the U.S. Cycling Federation who has run several Pan American cycling events in Cuba.
“They thought there was no way he was going to live, but son of a gun, he did.”
And on top of living, he became an amazing competitive cyclist, said Fraysse.
The Cuban cyclist lives with his mother in Havana, has no arms, and cycles with his stumps rather than use prosthetic devices to control the bicycle. He also has limited sight in one eye.
Alfonso who also placed 12th overall in his division of the Paralympics last summer, first met Tracy Lea in 2000, when he was 22 years old and already proving to be a fantastic cyclist locally.
Cuba does not provide financial support for disabled cyclists, and that means support must come from outside the country, said Lea.
So far, Lea has arranged for Alfonso to visit the U.S. four times, three times for free medical treatment, and a fourth time to compete. He has also visited Canada twice for World Cup competitions.
“He’s been fortunate, he’s had a chance, a lot of doors opened up to him,” explained Lea who was instrumental in helping Alfonso develop his cycling abilities. The Challenged Athletes Foundation grants also played a critical part in providing support to Alfonso to race in the international events to earn a qualifying spot for the games, said Lea.
Out of the 6,000 runners in the June Hope and Possibility run, about 1,000 will have a variety of disabilities but they will all compete together.
Achilles International has chapters in 10 South American chapters already, among them the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, as well as 60 other countries in all.
The Cuban athletes that join their new chapter may also be able to come to the U.S. for the Five Boro Bike Tour, a 42-mile bike event around the boroughs of New York.
Alfonso who is also a runner is expected to come to the November 3 New York City Marathon to compete as well said Traum. Several of the Achilles chapters host triathlon teams, which could be the final shape of the chapter in Cuba.
Alfonso did come to the last NYC Marathon, which was canceled in the after math of Hurricane Sandy which destroyed several New York communities. He did however run in Central Park where he surprisingly outran his guide, noted Traum.
Traum, who delights in racing against full-bodied cyclists, especially up the 86th Street hill on the west side of Central Park said he hopes the Hope and Possibility run will attract athletes from around the world, but also provide a chance for disabled athletes to compete against able-bodied runners.
“If I were visually impaired, an amputee, someone with traumatic brain injury, or had cerebral palsy, I would get in shape and come to New York. It would be the time of my life,” he said.