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Paratriathlete Overcomes Disability, Lack of Experience to Compete

By Kelly Bauer | August 21, 2013 6:54am

CHICAGO — Mike Wong never thought about competing in a triathlon — until his left arm was paralyzed in an accident, and he decided to seek new challenges.

Now, Wong regularly competes in multisport, long-distance races like Sunday's Chicago Life Time Triathlon. His interest started four years ago, after Wong, 30, was hit by a car during a run in Chicago. He said he suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken knee. Nerve damage to his left arm caused paralysis.

It was six months before the Wicker Park resident could run again, and he was in rehab for a year. He "didn't know how to swim at all," and he had not participated in a triathlon before the accident.

 Mike Wong, 30, of Wicker Park, is a paratriathlete who will participate in the upcoming Life Time Chicago Triathlon.
Mike Wong, 30, of Wicker Park, is a paratriathlete who will participate in the upcoming Life Time Chicago Triathlon.
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Provided by Mike Wong

"It was a challenge, and I kind of jumped into it," he said.

'The Positives of What People Can Do'

Wong has loved running since he was a teenager, when he joined the Glenbrook South High School track and cross-country teams. He graduated in 2001.

After the accident and rehabilitation, Wong reached a point where he was "pretty happy" with how he was running — except that he began to plateau in terms of speed. He wanted to see "immediate gains," and knew he might see those by getting involved in a triathlon, where he would be forced to improve his biking and swimming abilities.

"I wasn't in a position to just jump into that sort of activity following my accident. There was a lot of rehab that was needed," Wong said. "It was only the following summer that ... I decided, 'Hey, maybe I'll try this triathlon thing.'"

After signing up for a paratriathlon camp, Wong's name was passed on to Dare2Tri, a paratriathlon club that serves "serves youth, adults and injured service members who have a physical disability such as amputation, spinal cord injury, stroke, spina bifida, cerebral palsy as well as those with visual impairments or blindness."

"It tries to involve people with physical disabilities into the sport of triathlons by providing things like coaching and handcycles and adaptive equipment," Wong said. "In general, it kind of inspires the community to not let these folks sit on the sidelines."

The club is "focused on the positives of what people can do," said Lauren Wong, 29, Mike's wife.

Lauren, who is also a triathlete and volunteers with Dare2Tri, said the organization helped with "opening him up to new opportunities and figuring things out" after the accident.

"None of what I do would be possible without Dare2Tri," Mike said. "It's amazing what they've been able to achieve in just a few years."

Overcoming His Challenges

When Wong started competing, he had to swim in shallow areas to accommodate his method of mixing a backstroke and jog. He had taken required swimming lessons in high school, but he "didn't know how to swim at all."

"I sort of planned to flail around and run," he said. "You know, for cycling and running I have two legs that are working fine, and it's really just can I balance properly? Can I swing my arms properly? Getting through them is fine."

Wong said he uses his legs more than other athletes to swim, but he avoids overcompensating with them because he still needs his legs for running and biking. He makes each stroke "as powerful and efficient" as possible with his right arm.

"Swimming is an upper-body activity, and I only have one arm to do it," Wong said. "I'm like half the speed of everybody."

After years of training and competing, Wong swims well, but still considers it his weakest sport. Lauren, whose strongest sport is swimming, was surprised by her husband's transformation.

"For me, I'm loving that he's always wanting to go to the pool," she said. "[Mike] put in more time than I would have personally ever thought he would have done."

The Family That Competes Together ...

Lauren and Mike train together and often enter the same triathlons, though Mike said they are seldom in the same starting wave. Lauren is also Mike's handler, helping him change into different gear as he transitions from one sport to another.

"I feel very fortunate that she's good at it, and that she's my wife," he said.

Lauren started participating in triathlons at about the same time Mike did, but he said she is "much more hard-core" than he is. They married in April 2012, and the two spent their honeymoon in Tucson, Ariz., where Mike competed in a duathlon.

"We still get teased about it, and I think he still owes me a real honeymoon," Lauren joked. "It was a good experience."

Lauren, who is contemplating entering an Ironman competition, will be with Mike as he competes in the Chicago Triathlon Sunday at Monroe Harbor.