Tom Davis is usually not demonstrative when he crosses a finish line. But Monday was different. As he approached the blue ribbon stretched across Boylston Street, he punched the air, his fist dotting exclamation points in the sky.
Davis completed the Boston Marathon route in an astonishing 58:36, winning the handcycle division and knocking an even more astonishing 20 minutes off his previous Boston best.
“The wind helped,” he deadpanned, sitting in a wheelchair outside the Hancock Tower, as fellow members of the Achilles Freedom Team boarded their bus.
He won Boston twice before, and was ignored. This was the first time that the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the Marathon, formally recognized the handcycle winners with the same acknowledgement given to those who win the running and push-rim wheelchair divisions.
The only time “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on Monday at the winners’ ceremonies was to recognize Tom Davis and Michelle Love, who won the women’s handcycle division as the only female competitor. Love should have more competition next year, as the BAA has agreed to at least double the size of the handcycle field to 60.
“Any time I can stand there and watch that flag get raised, it’s a good day,” Tom Davis said.
Eleven years ago, Davis lost his left leg in Iraq when an IED blew up his Army Humvee.
Many of the competitors in the handcycle division are wounded warriors, some of whom underwent treatment and rehabilitation at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland alongside Marathon bombing survivors Marc Fucarile, Patrick Downes, and Downes’s wife, Jessica Kensky.
Downes, Kensky, and Fucarile lobbied hard for better treatment and more opportunities for handcyclists, especially wounded warriors, and to their credit, BAA chief executive Tom Grilk and his team responded after taking in the criticism. The BAA could teach United Airlines a few things.
But even after the BAA announced a series of concessions, including the formal recognition of the handcycle winners and a $2,500 prize for the winners, there were complaints.
Amanda McGrory and Brian Siemann, elite wheelchair racers, went public with their own criticism, saying the BAA shouldn’t have apologized for the way it has treated handcyclists because handcycles are like bicycles and don’t belong in the Marathon.
“It’s kind of weird that the only push-back we’re getting is from other disabled athletes,” Marc Fucarile told me as he boarded the Achilles team bus Monday afternoon. “But it is what it is.”
Fucarile, who lost his leg in the Marathon bombings, came in at 2:06, knocking a half-hour off his previous best.
Davis tries to ignore the drama and doesn’t understand the objections that wheelchair racers have to the inclusion and equitable treatment of handcyclists.
“We compete against each other, not them,” he said. “Our guys are out there competing against themselves, really. These are serious athletes.”
Just about everyone on the Achilles Freedom Team put up personal Boston bests on Monday. Alfredo “Freddie” De Los Santos, who finished second behind Davis at 1:03 with a personal best, lost his right leg when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Army Humvee in Afghanistan.
“It was special to do this with Freddie,” Davis said, looking to the bus where De Los Santos hopped to his seat. “We’ve been training partners for two years. He’s my brother.”
Patrick Downes feels the same way about Adam Keys, an Army veteran who lost both legs and one arm to an IED in Afghanistan. They raced side-by-side Monday, crossing the finish line together.
Downes gets emotional when he talks about the way the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who lost limbs in war took him, his wife, and Marc Fucarile in like family when they arrived at Walter Reed.
“We wanted them to be treated right when they came to Boston for the Marathon,” Downes said.
Tom Davis felt respect from the spectators all along. On Monday, he felt it from the Marathon’s organizers.
With all due respect to the purists, the Marathon didn’t just change on Monday. It got better.