Four years ago, when Tom Davis crossed the finish line as the winner of the handcycle division of the Boston Marathon, there was no one there to place a wreath on his head.
The announcer didn’t acknowledge his victory. There was no national anthem. No one did anything.
“It’s as if it didn’t happen,” said Davis, an Army veteran who lost his left leg in Iraq when an IED destroyed his Humvee in 2006.
Hours after Davis crossed the finish line, two bombs exploded on Boylston Street, killing three and leaving dozens of spectators with the sort of wounds that Davis and other military veterans suffered on foreign battlefields. But that new, horrific bond has not translated into a greater appreciation of what it takes to complete a marathon without all your limbs.
Almost every year, for the better part of a decade, a wounded warrior who lost part of his body in Iraq or Afghanistan has been the first to cross the finish line in a handcycle on Boylston Street and there has been no recognition of their triumph.
Last year, there was what I guess you could call recognition of some sort, when an announcer made what several witnesses said were disparaging remarks about the relative ease of handcycling, compared to running 26.2 miles on two legs or pushing oneself in a wheelchair.
The finish line snub is just the most obvious slight that wounded warriors say is part of a pattern of unwelcoming and disrespectful treatment by officials from the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the Marathon. Those wounded warriors say they are treated as afterthoughts, as an inconvenience, compared to able-bodied runners and wheelchair athletes.
They’ve had to fight for more slots for competitors, plead to be allowed to take their own bus to the starting line in Hopkinton, beg to let someone pick up their competitor bibs so they don’t have to negotiate the logistical nightmare of getting to the Hynes Convention Center.
“If you don’t want handcycles in the race, that’s fine,” said Davis, who has competed in Boston twice. “But don’t put us in and treat us like second-class citizens.”
Adam Keys, an Army veteran who lost both legs and one arm to an IED in Afghanistan in 2010, said wounded warriors who compete as part of the Achilles Freedom Team feel more welcome at other marathons, such as Los Angeles and New York, where there are far more slots reserved for those using handcycles.
“They are more accommodating in other cities,” Keys said.
Tom Grilk, chief executive officer of the BAA, doesn’t accept the criticism that the association has been grudging and unwelcoming in its acceptance of handcycles.
“I think just the opposite is true,” he told me. “We’re very pleased to have people competing in handcycles, especially the veterans.”
He said this year’s handcycle field, at 30, is the biggest ever and has grown steadily. The field is limited and generally reserved for about 20 disabled military veterans, and civilians who were disabled in the Marathon bombings, including Patrick Downes and Marc Fucarile. There is also room for six randomly selected disabled civilians.
Other marathons have anywhere from two to four times as many slots reserved for handcycles, which have three wheels and gears and are propelled by hand in much the same manner as bikes are powered by feet. Boston allows more than twice as many wheelchair competitors as handcyclists.
Grilk says the BAA has gone out of its way to be accommodating, noting that this year, for the first time, they will let a delegate collect the competitor bibs for the wounded warriors from the Achilles Freedom Team and also allow the team to take their own bus and equipment truck to Hopkinton.
As for the insensitivity the announcer showed toward handcyclists at last year’s Marathon, Grilk said BAA officials reviewed audio from the finish line but could find no evidence of the disparaging remarks. Still, he added, “because we care very much for the perceptions of everybody, we are giving special instructions to announcers this year to use correct terminology.”
Grilk traveled to Michigan to meet with handcycle competitor Nick Koulchar, an Army veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, after Koulchar complained about the announcer’s remarks.
As for the lack of formal recognition of the handcycle winner, Grilk said, “There certainly is no intention of a slight.” He said they would consider recognizing the handcycle winner in the future.
“We’ve been focused on allowing participation,” he said.
But wounded warriors and their supporters say Boston has been less willing than other marathons to open up more slots. Janet Patton, director of the Achilles Freedom Team, said they could fill many more slots for Boston, but the BAA has been reluctant to grow the field. It crushes her to tell those who are training for Boston that there just aren’t enough slots.
“We’d like to see it grow, not just for military but for civilians, too,” she said. “Our military guys like to advocate for civilians with disabilities.”
Grilk said the BAA is limited in what it can do. He says there are safety concerns.
“The reason we have field size restrictions is because there’s not a whole lot of room,” he said.
There’s room for 30,000 runners, but only 30 handcycles.
Patton and the wounded warriors say the safety excuse is a cop out. So do Marathon bombing survivors Patrick Downes and Marc Fucarile, who say this comes down to not treating disabled athletes equally.
Fucarile, Downes, and his wife, Jess Kensky, have undergone rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland after losing their legs in the Marathon bombing and have grown close to wounded warriors there. Downes said that during a tour of Walter Reed, Grilk said that if he had his way, handcycles would not be part of the Boston Marathon.
Grilk didn’t deny saying that, but told me, “I have never taken a single step to stop them.”
However elite the poohbahs at the BAA view their race or themselves, everything changed on Patriots Day 2013. Innocence and limbs were lost on Boylston Street, which makes this situation all the more deplorable and unacceptable.
Among the first people who appeared at the bedsides of those who lost their limbs on Boylston Street were American soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors who lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same malevolent force behind the IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan turned up in pressure cooker IEDs on Boylston Street. Those wounded warriors inspired the Marathon survivors to get up and walk again, and in some cases to run again.
This is a sacred bond that should be forever recognized and honored at the Boston Marathon. And, right now, it is not being honored. It’s being marginalized and trivialized.
People who gave their limbs for this country should not have to beg to take part in the Boston Marathon or have their achievements acknowledged at the finish line.
As we told those we sent to war, please, just fix it.