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Paralympic athlete trains with Marine here for summer games

By Art Powell | | July 16, 2009

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Eric McDaniel Jr. had a promising military career in the Army until a life-threatening accident during training nearly killed him.

But you’d never know about his physical challenge if you saw the Special Forces veteran working out on his bicycle along Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., roads preparing for the 2009 State Games of America in Colorado later this month.

“Right now, I’m training in track and field, bicycling, swimming, running and rowing,” said McDaniel, a trim and athletic former sergeant with five years of active duty.

He was medically retired four years ago following a training accident which occurred while he was competing to become a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force.

A choke-hold triggered a stroke which now limits his ability to speak or fully use the right side of his body.

But it didn’t affect his ability or will to compete. “I get up at five o’clock every morning, Jamaica, my dog, and I go run. Then I bike ride to relax and enjoy the scenery. I train all day and go to bed at six at night,” he explained.

“Then I wake up and do it again.”

According to the website usparalympics.org., “U.S. Paralympics is leading the development of new Paralympic sport programs in 250 American cities by 2012.  

With 21 million physically disabled Americans, including more than 31,000 military personnel who’ve been severely injured during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is an important community need.

Research shows that people who participate in daily physical activity experience enhanced self-esteem and improved peer relationships, which correlate to increased achievement, overall better health and a higher quality of life.”

U.S. Paralympics, as part of its Paralympic Military Program, is partnering with the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund to help enhance the recovery of injured Marines and Sailors and through sports and recreation.

“Team Semper Fi” provides coaches, specialized sporting equipment, entry fees, and travel expenses for the wounded team members.

Following McDaniel’s stroke, he began the road to recovery in a wheelchair, and had difficulty speaking. Now, he trains for competitive sports and looks forward to the upcoming Colorado games.

His most recent competition was in the Endeavor Games in Oklahoma for track and field, bicycling, swimming, running and rowing.

“Following the accident at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, it was difficult to speak at first. But I had speech therapy in Tampa and now I’m getting more fluid in my talking,” he said.

The local connection for McDaniel is Maj. Kent Wheeler, commander, Defense Distribution Center Albany, Ga., who is a cycling coach.

He works as a cycling coach with McDaniel in his off-duty hours.

“I responded to a call for coaches and contacted the Paralympic Division of the U.S. Olympic Committee. They run a Paralympic Military Program and since Eric was in Tampa and I was here in Albany, I visited him a couple of times in Florida, where I frequently go to race, and he’s come to Albany now for some training,” Wheeler explained.

Cycle coaching doesn’t require Wheeler to be with McDaniel full-time for training and coaching.

“I send him a training plan and he follows that plan and tells me how he’s doing,” said Wheeler.

McDaniel’s training for the State Games of America in Colorado includes three cycling events.

“He’ll compete in the time trials, a road race and a criterium (crit).  A crit is an event run in an urban area and less than a mile in length and is very technical; it’s about bike handling skills and speed. In Colorado, he’ll be up against other military Paralympic competitors,” said Wheeler.

The work Wheeler does with McDaniel, he says, goes beyond a typical coach-athlete arrangement because of the special circumstances involved.

“This creates a lot of pride for me and Eric, just for the simple fact that I’m supporting another military person, somebody who has been out fighting for the American people and now has a handicap, and now I’m able to support him in my own little way, through cycling. Some people can do it through money, this is how I’m contributing to my fellow service members.”

Individuals wanting more information about the Paralympics can visit the U.S. Paralympics website, www.usparalympics.org, or the James A. Haley Veteran’s Administration Hospital’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program, which is responsible for McDaniel’s program.

All are designed to integrate the wounded warrior back into society through sports.

“Luckily, I don’t have to race against him,” Wheeler said before he and McDaniel took to the road on the east end of the base for more training.
“I’m just his coach. So, I can sit on the sidelines and watch him race. He’s a phenomenal athlete, and I expect a lot from him.”

Wheeler is a long-time cycling enthusiast who has competed in the sport for years and now coaches the sport while off-duty for individuals such as McDaniel and others without disabilities.

He continues to compete while also coaching.

While most individuals are familiar with seeing eye dogs for the blind, McDaniel’s dog represents another type of service animal.

Jamaica is specially trained to live with a stroke victim and also be a companion to them.

Service animals can be trained to assist special needs individuals with various medical issues, including stroke victims such as McDaniel.

Jamaica is trained to sense if McDaniel is encountering a medical condition and needs assistance, and then raising the alarm.

As the date approaches for the 2009 State Games of America, McDaniel will increase his training and preparation for the sports in which he will compete.


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