‘My restrictions set me free’
Kerry Gruson's neck hangs to the right, permanently; her voice scarcely breaches a hoarse whisper and she is unable to move on her own — a traumatic experience at 26 changed her life.
In the 45 years since, however, she has become a poster child for differently-abled athletes and regularly competes in high-profile events.
MS Amlin World Triathlon Bermuda brought her here last month and she is on one of six differently-abled teams participating in the New York City Marathon in September.
“Of course I can't swim, pedal or run,” she said. “I do it all with the help of other athletes. I am completely dependent on other people for everything in my life — from participating in any sport to getting a glass of water or dressing.
“But instead of creating feelings of defeat, dependency, confinement or purposelessness, the restrictions become a victory and a form of freedom, a way of life with a message: we are all interdependent.
“For me it's not just about [able-bodied] athletes helping [differently-abled] athletes, it's people helping people.”
A journalist, Ms Gruson was on her way to Vietnam to report on the end of the war for a string of heavy-hitting newspapers when a Green Beret she was interviewing about his time there suffered a flashback, strangled her and left her for dead. With recovery came the understanding that she was paralysed and her vocal chords severely damaged. It changed everything for Ms Gruson, a Harvard graduate who speaks four languages.
“I was angry for a bit but very soon realised that anger consumes so much energy and it closes down your life,” she said.
“I wanted to live a happy life and so I had to get over that anger fast. It helps if you put yourself in the shoes of the person you're angry at. Open your ears to another person's point of view and suddenly the world opens up and your own life becomes richer.
“Today, I am effectively a quadriplegic. My neck has a permanent rightward crick and my voice barely rises above a hoarse whisper. Regardless, I choose to live out loud.
“The attack has brought an appreciation of the gift of life and for all of its many challenges. I found a world in the home of sports, have raced sailboats at world-class events, scuba dive and now I seek fulfilment as an endurance athlete, which I see as a metaphor for human endeavours in general.”
In an article she wrote in 1985 for The Sunday Times magazine, she further explained how she had not allowed the attack to derail her: “Since the accident, I have married and divorced. I have translated from the French a book about the mammals of the French and Australian Antarctic. I moved to Miami to avoid the muscle-stiffening cold of the north and worked for The Miami News. For the last seven years, I have been with The New York Times in Miami.”
Ms Gruson had been active in sports before her attack, riding horses, fencing and skiing.
In Miami she began competing, benefiting from a non-profit that helps people of all abilities enjoy sailing and other water sports.
Shake-A-Leg led to her involvement in triathlons and in 2015 Ms Gruson cofounded ThumbsUp International, a charity with a mission “to expand attitudes about life's possibilities by connecting people across all abilities to conquer athletic challenges together”.
“Many people say what is your role? What do you contribute?” she said.
“I feel that racing is very much mental and muscle as well as physical. By the end, we're both fairly tired. I try to match [their] breathing — I feel breath gives you power; breath is living — and I'm mentally encouraging [them].”
Erinne Guthrie, one of a team of athletes who partner Ms Gruson in competition, was with her for WTS Bermuda. They completed the race in 2hr 34min 14sec.
“The triathlon is three sports and that's one of the reasons why it's on everybody's to-do list,” she said.
“When you cross the finish line there's no other feeling like it. I've done almost 200 races and whenever I race with Kerry I feel the most satisfied.
“It's a completely different experience. It helps me in my life in so many ways. It makes it not about being first but about working together.”
Getting over Corkscrew Hill with her bike and the carriage carrying Ms Gruson — who weighs 140lbs — proved a “bit more challenging than expected”.
Ms Guthrie, a fitness expert and triathlete coach with Miami-based company Full Circle, was forced to walk them all; the weight of the carriage pulled the rear wheel off her bike.
“It was the hardest climb of my life,” she said. “I really struggled to stay calm but I have to say without the crowd cheering us on I'm not sure I could have physically done it.
“The rest of the course was challenging and beautiful; Kerry felt like she was on a rollercoaster smiling and giving everyone her characteristic thumbs up gesture the whole way.”
The real downside was learning that the only other differently-abled duo, Team Ladybugs, was unable to finish after their custom bike and wheelchair was wrecked in a crash. Stephen Couture broke a rib in the accident; his 13-year-old daughter Chloe, who has cerebral palsy, received minor injuries.
“When we heard they had an accident, we were sick with the news hoping they were OK,” Ms Guthrie said. “Knowing and feeling their disappointment about not having completed the race, Kerry and I agreed we were racing for and representing both teams. We'd been so thrilled to find out we were to share the course with another (able/disabled) team and were beyond thrilled to share the course with [Chloe]. At ThumbsUp International we believe the change we seek to make in the world will begin with young people. And we wanted to be sure the Ladybugs got their finishers medals for giving it their best effort.
“We want to express our profound gratitude to Bermuda World Triathlon for so warmly embracing the participation of duo teams, also to Massachusetts General Hospital for sponsoring both teams' trips to Bermuda and making this wonderful experience possible.”
Their hope is to be invited to return for WTS Bermuda next April although there are a string of races Ms Gruson has to prepare for before then.
“We have a whole community of athletes who race with Kerry in the ThumbsUp International groundbreaking Race2Educate campaign where young athletes join in to help disabled athletes,” Ms Guthrie said. “This September my 12-year-old daughter Kia will be Kerry's swimmer and Nico, the young son of another triathlete friend, Valeria Rodriguez, will push Kerry on the run. I will shadow the swim (for safety) and bike with Kerry.”
Ms Gruson is partnering with Caryn Lubetsky, her ThumbsUp International co-chair, for the New York City Marathon. The two hope it will help them beat their Guinness World Record of four, for the most triathlon races hauling another person completed by a female in one month.
• For more information on ThumbsUp International and its initiatives, visit thumbsupintl.org. Learn more about Full Circle at fullcirclecoaching.com