While other 18-year-olds were preparing for college, Greg Damerow was bed-ridden and hoping he might one day be able to walk again. Twenty years later, the adaptive cycle builder and handcycle athlete has turned tragedy into triumph — and recently returned from London as a spectator at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
“The disease I was diagnosed with is Ankylosing Spondylitis, an acute arthritis that attacks the larger joints of the body and spinal column,” he explained. “Although my hips no longer have motion as the cartilage has fused and turned to bone, I am able to walk using my knees and ankles.”
After nearly three years of major symptoms, the disease ceased progressing. At 21, Damerow learned to walk again with crutches, and by 25 he no longer needed a cane for normal everyday activity.
“I am blessed as there are many who have the disease symptoms chronically, requiring continuous and potent medications, usually with negative side effects,” he said.
Since re-learning to walk, Damerow has discovered an unexpected passion for handcycling — first as a hobby and now as a profession.
A promotion at work meant a more sedentary job, prompting Damerow to get more physically fit. After a little online research, he was introduced to the world of handcycling, a sport where athletes ride modified bicycles powered by their arms rather than their legs.
Not only was he intrigued by the sport, Damerow also was inspired to build his own handcycle.
“I built my first handcycle in March 2009 for health and fitness reasons, because most other forms of exercise simply are not an option,” he said. “Handcycling is one of the few sports in which I have the ability to compete.”
The inaugural ride was exhilarating.
“The first time I rode, I had such a sense of speed and freedom of movement, something I had missed for almost 20 years,” he recalled.
That desire to maintain fitness grew into a passion for the sport.
Damerow now is a handcycle racer on the US Handcycling Federation race schedule. He most recently medaled in the USA Cycling Para-Cycling Championships, earning bronze in the 12-mile time trial and silver in the 30-mile road race in the H4 classification. He also is training to compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
He’s expanded his interest, too and taken up wheelchair racing. In fact, Damerow placed second in the wheelchair category of the Air Force Marathon for two consecutive years. Next on his list? He has his eyes set on triathlons.
Additionally, he is working to organize a handcycle race in Cincinnati during the summer of 2013. Damerow said he hopes to draw from the handcycle and paracycling racing community from all over the country.
Damerow now is building handcycles and other adaptive sports equipment for athletes with physical limitations. He and his business, Personalized Cycling Alternatives, recently made national headlines when he was named the winner of the Hartford Achieve Without Limits competition.
As the grand prize winner of the contest, Damerow won $10,000 of funding, mentorship from a U.S. Paralympic athlete and a trip to the London 2012 Paralympic Games to cheer on Team USA. Watching the events and meeting the United States athletes helped build Damerow’s enthusiasm for the 2016 Games.
Over the past six months, Damerow used his grant to fulfill his goal of expanding his custom adaptive bicycle business, which he began in 2010. He started this small business with the goal of building handcycles and adaptive bikes for riders of all abilities, including the best Paralympic athletes in the world.
“Greg exemplifies the courage, confidence and commitment of U.S. Paralympic athletes who push themselves to the limits to achieve extraordinary goals,” said Jonathan Bennett, executive vice president with The Hartford.
The Hartford, a founding partner of U.S. Paralympics, launched the Achieve Without Limits Campaign in March 2011 to give consumers the opportunity to engage with elite U.S. Paralympic athletes, to be inspired by their stories and understand what it means to achieve without limits.
“I was honored to be selected as the winner of the Achieve Without Limits Contest,” Damerow said. “It’s been a rewarding experience to share my journey with my mentor, who is also working to achieve a goal against all odds.”
Brent Rasmussen, a member of the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team, served as Damerow’s mentor.
“It has been a true pleasure advising Greg and witnessing his sheer determination to make his dreams reality,” said Rasmussen. “I hope his story motivates and inspires others to overcome challenges and achieve their own goals.”