Disabled Vets Plunge Into Alcatraz Triathlon

San Francisco Chronicle

June 7, 2008 – Derek McGinnis doesn’t scare easily, but nobody can blame him for being a little nervous Sunday when he lines up for the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon.

The 30-year-old Iraq war veteran will be at a slight disadvantage, having lost a leg and suffered a severe head injury in a suicide car bomb attack in Fallujah four years ago.

McGinnis, nevertheless, will plunge into the frigid waters off the infamous rock and thrash his way 1.5 miles through choppy seas to the Marina Green. After his racing partner covers the cycling portion of the race, McGinnis will put on his prosthetic leg and run 8 miles over hills and through sand and dirt until he crosses the finish line at the St. Francis Yacht Club.

“Definitely, Alcatraz is the toughest race I’ve done,” said McGinnis, who grew up in Fremont and lives in the Stanislaus County town of Waterford, near Modesto. “It’s pretty intimidating.”

McGinnis is one of 12 wounded combat veterans who will subject themselves this weekend to the trials of the Alcatraz triathlon.

The competitors are members of Team Semper Fi, which provides coaching, training, transportation and lodging to U.S. Marine, Navy and Army combat veterans who want to compete as part of their recovery.

The team, which is sponsored by the nonprofit Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, is one of several programs designed to help wounded veterans and their families cope with disabling injuries and rediscover purpose in their lives.

‘Huge amount of comradery’
“They are showing the world that there is still hope and that they can be a part of society,” said Wendy Lethin, the director of community relations for the Semper Fi Fund. “To watch somebody who has lost a leg or lost an arm or had a traumatic brain injury competing like this, wow, talk about motivating. That’s our team, and there is a huge amount of comradery.”

It is actually McGinnis’ second crack at the grueling Escape From Alcatraz race, which draws about 15,000 spectators a year. He did the swim portion last year, struggling out of the water after an hour and a half. His plan this year is to do the swim in under an hour and hand off to his teammate, Eric Frazier, who is paralyzed from the waist down. Frazier will cycle the second leg on a hand-crank bicycle, and McGinnis will run the third leg.

“At this point, I’m just trying to finish the race,” McGinnis said. “I already know what to expect with the swim. The run, well, I’m not looking forward to running on the sand, but it will be fun.”

McGinnis has already gone through hell, so there aren’t many hardships he can’t handle.

The former Navy medic never saw the car that slammed into his ambulance in Fallujah that November day in 2004, blowing apart the vehicle and severing his left leg above the knee.

When he woke up in a veteran’s hospital two months later, he still had shrapnel in one eye, and half of his face was paralyzed. He couldn’t speak, eat, or see out of the one eye, and there were open wounds all over his body.

“They did a wonderful job putting me back together,” McGinnis said. But the real work had not even begun.

His wife, Andrea, was six months pregnant when he was hit.

“When she went into labor, we were all patients together at Bethesda Naval Hospital,” McGinnis said. “That was the biggest motivation for me in the world. It saved my life. It made me pull through, knowing my wife was pregnant and I had to be there for my son. It’s that drive to be a dad.”

Real work begins
McGinnis underwent a year of surgeries, physical and speech therapy. He was outfitted with a prosthetic leg that has a microchip to simulate his gait.

It was the physical therapy that got him thinking about running and swimming.

“I was doing a lot of swimming and therapy in the pool to get my core strength back, and I loved it so I spent even more time in the pool,” he said. “The staff at the military hospital for the amputees would be there with me at 6 a.m. to help me run on the track. My therapist helping me swim would be there helping me after hours.”

When he was released from the hospital in November 2005, he vowed to run a 10-kilometer race. Less than a year later, he completed the Army 10-miler in Bethesda, Md., and shortly after that he ran the Marine Corps 10-kilometer race, ending at the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Full schedule of sports
McGinnis, who lives with his wife, son Sean, 3, and son, Ryan, 1, now bicycles, surfs, swims, and trains for several biathlons a year. The members of the Semper Fi team not only compete, but they also recruit, motivate and assist wounded veterans in setting personal goals.

McGinnis, who will begin working on a master’s degree in social work at California State University Stanislaus starting this fall, has helped amputees and other wounded veterans navigate the military health care system. He also works for the American Pain Foundation, helping veterans cope with pain.

Still, it is hard enough for an able-bodied athlete to swim through heavy currents in 50-degree water. Why would someone who barely escaped Iraq want to risk hypothermia, exhaustion, maybe even a shark attack, escaping from Alcatraz?

“It’s just a personal thing,” McGinnis said. “Every time I’m in a race, it is very emotional. It’s like I’ve accomplished another goal, and that opens the door for me to accomplish another one and another one.”

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