Amputee, ex-Steelers star, neurosurgeon face Ironman challenge in Hawaii


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Three men with three back stories as disparate as can be: a war hero who left a limb on a foreign battlefield; a retired professional football star; a septuagenarian neurosurgeon.

Distinct paths led Belle Vernon native Eric McElvenny, Steelers legend Hines Ward and UPMC doctor Joseph Maroon to the western coastline of Hawaii, a place that would otherwise be paradise, if not for the task at hand this morning: the Ironman World Championship triathlon. Regarded as one of, if not the most, grueling athletic competitions in the world, it punishes competitors with a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon.

But while their motivations and circumstances differ, their common goal is as simply stated as it is difficult to achieve: Finish.

He prayed for the helicopter to come.

As he lay on the ground dazed, staring at the sky, he could feel the warm, wet blood soak his uniform and acknowledged the notion that he might soon be dead.

From the time he wrote an eighth-grade report about the Marine Corps, Eric McElvenny wanted to be one. HE was a scholar athlete in the class of 2001 at Belle Vernon Area High School; his trajectory took him to the Naval Academy Prep School, then to Annapolis, and then the Marines.

Capt. McElvenny in August 2011 was with the Second Battalion 4th Marines in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. He had been in country two months, nearing the end of a patrol -- one that he took in place of one of his men, whom he let sleep in -- on a miserably cold day when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, the weapon of choice of the Taliban.

"Then I felt the wetness on my other leg. I thought I'd lost them both and was bleeding out. I thought of my wife and my daughter and that I could be dying right now."

A medic in his unit gave him immediate attention, and although his rescue helicopter came under Taliban fire, they were able to get him and fly to a hospital in only 20 minutes. His right heel was gone and lower leg shattered, but the prompt medical attention saved his life.

"I was thankful it was me and not one of my guys," Capt. McElvenny said. "If you're going to war you accept that something bad could happen. I thought, I'm going to die. Instead I felt lucky. Initially, that's what it was. I was grateful I was still around and things weren't worse.

"I had known guys who had lost limbs. A guy on my previous deployment lost a leg, stayed in and deployed again. So I knew there was life after amputation."

His commanding officer sent him a message of encouragement in which he said he would come to watch Capt. McElvenny run his first marathon. Though he was still learning to walk with a prosthetic, Capt. McElvenny decided to one-up his boss and said he'd do an Ironman.

"Right off the bat for me, it was personal -- even selfish. This bad thing happened, this challenge, and I needed to get out there and do something big," he said. "It started as a self goal but now it's for everyone. I ran into an issue and I'm trying to overcome it. Maybe people will say, 'Wow if he can deal with his challenge like that, so can I.' "

As his training progressed, he hooked up with the Challenged Athletes Foundation near his San Diego home and was ultimately selected to join Got Chocolate Milk's Become One triathlon team, led by Hines Ward -- the former Belle Vernon wide receiver's favorite player growing up.

Of Capt. McElvenny, Mr. Ward said, "He's taught me the will, that whatever the circumstances may be, not to give up. I'm honored to be his teammate, but I'm just as honored to be his friend."

Capt. McElvenny, 30, will cross the finish line 22 months and three days after becoming an amputee.

"I think its going to be pretty emotional," he said. "My wife and daughters and parents will be out here. It's gonna feel great."

He'd never run a mile.

A world class athlete, the Super Bowl XL MVP, one of the greatest ever to wear Steelers' black and gold, Hines Ward by his own admission, had never even run a consecutive mile in a career built on short sprints. Not to mention that he wasn't a swimmer, didn't bike and his post-playing weight had ballooned from the catered meals, constant travel and lack of exercise that marks the life of a newly retired ballplayer-cum-television analyst.

Mr. Ward's story is well documented. The biracial son of an immigrant single mother, always thought to be too slow or too small to be an elite NFL receiver, using those shoulder chips to propel himself to likely Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. Yet he unequivocally has called Kona the most daunting undertaking of his life.

"No question about it. It's a grueling process. I started training in late February and it's been nonstop. There's not a day off when it comes to Ironman," Mr. Ward said.

As the face of the Become One team, he was paired with eight-time Ironman world champion Paula Newby-Fraser, who had to retrain a football star on how to exercise.

"Getting the opportunity to train with phenomenal athletes and pick their mind is incredible," Mr. Ward said. "The key message is to pace myself. I'm competing against myself. ... This is the only event I've ever been involved in that I know I don't have any chance to win," he said with a laugh.

The 38-year-old Ward has shed 38 pounds, down to 193, a weight he hasn't seen since his college days. He said his recent visit to Pittsburgh shocked some of his old teammates.

"I hadn't seen some of those guys in a long time and they thought I must be sick or something," he said.

And though he's been on football's biggest stage three times, and set himself up for possible ridicule before winning on "Dancing With the Stars," he still has major anxiety about today's competition.

Having accomplished so much, what's his motivation?

"Prove it to myself. The Ironman is about triumph -- if you cross the finish line, you can do anything."

He lost his father, his marriage and his job in the same week.

In 1983, Joseph Maroon was in the darkness of the deepest depression of his life. His father was dead of a heart attack, and he was estranged from both his wife and a neurosurgery practice he'd left to take care of a family truck stop willed to him upon his dad's passing. The former All-American Indiana University tailback had, at age 43, fallen into terrible condition, both physically and mentally.

After eight months of despair, a friend browbeat him into joining him for a run. Nothing impossible. Four laps at a track. One mile.

He did, and immediately felt better. So he did more. And more.

"The best antidepressant you can get is exercise," said Dr. Maroon, who is also the Steelers' team doctor. Other lifestyle changes soon followed.

"What I discovered was when I did the physical part, my body just kind of gravitated to the rest. I stopped the hamburgers and the Big Macs and the alcohol as well. I couldn't perform if my body didn't feel well if I ate junk."

He became a zealot for exercise and nutrition, but a trip to Kona was still years in the making.

"I had no concept of Ironman. It was all incremental. I gradually increased the bar."

And he kept increasing it. A decade later at age 53, he completed his first Ironman. Today, at age 73 -- 73! -- will be his eighth.

Mr. Ward said he's happy that a familiar face will be with him today, even if he won't get much mercy from his old doc.

"Dr. Maroon -- he wants to beat my butt bad," Mr. Ward said with a laugh.

One of Dr. Maroon's favorite quotes is from Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote, "The greatest moments of our lives are when our mind or our body is stretched to its limits in the voluntary pursuit of something both difficult and worthwhile."

He knows that to be true from his Ironman experience. Hines Ward and Eric McElvenny will find out today if they agree.

Note:

An earlier version misstated Joseph Maroon's specialty.

Steelers - sportsother

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com; @gigs412. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM


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