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Southern Rail: Raising the bar

By Robert Filla

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On September 1, 2013, Diana Nyad, 64, swam ashore in Key West to become the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. She’s a journalist and a former champion squash player. And she’s attempted this particular crossing four times in the past with her first effort 35 years ago in 1978. The 110-mile swim took Nyad 53 hours to complete (I couldn’t constantly swim for 53 minutes). At the end of this herculean effort, she had three messages. “One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”

In 1998, on his third attempt, Englishman Tom Whittaker became the first disabled person to climb Mount Everest. Whittaker’s right foot had been amputated following an auto accident in 1979 but, after his recovery, he continued his passion of mountain climbing. His current goal is to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents.

Teenaged Stephanie Jallen has CHILD syndrome, an acronym for Congenital Hemidysplasia with Ichthyosiform Erythroderma and Limb Defects. That basically means she was born with one arm and one leg. Only 60 cases have ever been reported since it was first identified in 1908. The 17-year old’s favorite activities (other than skiing) are soccer, basketball and riding her all-terrain vehicle. She was recently training on the slopes of Austria and Colorado and hopes to compete in the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer lost his vision at age 13. In 2001 he became the only blind person to ever summit Mount Everest. Since then he has completed his quest of climbing the Seven Summits, the goal mentioned earlier by Whittaker. In addition to that sport, he also rock climbs, kayaks whitewater and is a paraglider. He is a noted author of several books, has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and received the Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award.

Biker heroes

On August 15, 2013, during the 65th anniversary of Bonneville Speed Week, Bob Lewis from Corpus Christi, Texas set a new record in the M-VG Class (Motorcycle-Vintage Gas). And while I’ve yet to determine his age, it’s probably not too far distanced from Nyad the swimmer’s. But most astounding was that he was piloting a 1948 Knucklehead Harley on the salt, a bike that was equipped with a tank shifter.

At age 17, David Barr began his career with the U.S. Marine Corps, receiving 57 air medals for his service on a helicopter gunship in Vietnam. He fought later in numerous causes losing both his legs in a landmine explosion in 1981. After a lengthy recovery and equipped with two prosthetic legs, he boarded his 1972 Harley for a ride around the entire globe. He soldiered on and established a Guinness World Record for crossing northern Europe, Russia and Siberia on a motorcycle in the dead of winter. His latest adventure earned him a second Guinness World Record on his “Southern Cross” journey of 45 days, the first motorcycle ride ever between the four extreme geographical corners of Australia.

On a warm, Wednesday morning in South Dakota this year, at the Sturgis Dragway, one-armed Harry Saunders from Shooters and Scooters in Troy, Montana, wanted to take advantage of the promotion being offered by S&S Cycle. The invitation was to race your own machine down the Sturgis Dragway and follow it with a second run on a Harley Dyna that had been fitted with an S&S T124, just so you could evaluate the differences. Harry had lost his right arm during an unintended dynamite explosion while working as an excavator. He rides daily with a specially-designed set of handlebars that relocates all of his controls to the left side and provides a mounting post for his prosthetic arm on the right. The day he showed up at the track, he had brought another set of the special bars with him. The bars were quickly installed by the S&S track team, and soon Saunders was blazing a fiery track down the Sturgis strip. His main comment was, “I’m gonna have to put this [the 124”] into something.”

On August 28, one-armed Chris Mitchell rode a specially-adapted Suzuki through the challenging course at the Isle of Man, finishing in 11th place out of 20 riders at the Manx Grand Prix Newcomer’s B Race. He lost his arm in a bike accident in 2001.

Back to Bonneville, where 43-year-old Dan Parker made history by being the first blind motorcyclist to ever race on the Salt Flats, reaching speeds of 35–40 mph. (Just try doing that with your eyes closed.) Parker was able to steer the bike by being linked to his team via a helmet cam, GPS and computer aid.

Being able to walk into the kitchen on both legs, watching the sunrise as I grab a cup of coffee in one good hand and a bagel in the other, I have little cause to bitch about how difficult it is to remove the top from my bottle of arthritis pain meds before taking off for a day’s leisurely spin. Thankfully there will always be those unique individuals who continue to set the bar for all us slackers and provide fuel for our next adventure.

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