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The Blog

Overcoming Challenges

by Pat Jak

We all encounter problems in our lives – obstacles or challenges that seem to keep us from reaching our goals. They can consume our every fiber and drag us down. From the standpoint of our health and fitness they can disrupt our peace of mind, our state of being, and even our ability to exercise. As you are reading this, you may even be thinking about your own obstacles and issues, both small and large.

Maybe you are overworked or under so much stress from time consuming projects or weekly appointments you can’t get to the gym for a workout. You may feel overwhelmed with tasks and projects before you. Or you are possibly agonizing over an important life decision and these distractions just seem to be too much.

Perhaps your shoulder is bothering you or your legs are hurting from yesterday’s jump squats. Maybe some little aches or sore muscles are just enough for you to take the day off. Or even worse, you look at the amount of work you need to reach your goals and decide to throw in the towel, saying you are “just getting too old.” After all, it’s much easier to sit on the couch with a bowl of ice cream than it is to give it fifteen more minutes on the treadmill.

These are real problems you face. Or so you claim. But trust me when I say “You’ve got nothin’ and it’s time for you to stick a pin in your ‘issues,’ overcome your challenges, and get down to the business of taking care of yourself!”

I say this after taking part in an incredible event, the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge (QMDC). On October 18, one hundred cyclists departed San Francisco and began a journey south to San Diego. Riding as a group leader, I acted as part coach, part motivator, and part cat herder with a major goal in mind – safe passage back home for all riders involved.

Over 7 days, we cycled 625 miles on some of the most beautiful roads in California, if not our entire nation. From the fog-covered hills of San Francisco to the pine covered slopes of Big Sur. From the mansions of 17 Mile Drive to the wineries surrounding Solvang. We took in breathtaking beauty and experienced so much more.

See, the QMDC raises funds for The Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization dedicated to “helping people with disabilities pursue an active lifestyle through physical fitness and competitive athletics.” All too often, individuals who lose a limb, their ability to walk, or their eyesight have a tough time getting prosthetics or wheel chairs or specialized gear. Sometimes this is because of the cost of the equipment. Sometimes it is because an insurance company refuses to cover their request forcing them to use second-hand or semi-functioning devices.

Funds from the QMDC help The Challenged Athletes Foundation offer grants so individuals with disabilities are not forced inside and away from living an active life. With some of these amazing prosthetics and devices, they can not only perform their daily functions easier they can compete in events from triathlons to basketball games. And it is heart-warming to see children who have suffered from an illness or accident running and playing with no care in the World – as children are meant to do.

Sure, the majority of riders taking part in the QMDC were considered able-bodied (maybe a little crazy, but able-bodied). But there were several challenged athletes who joined us for the ride. And they were the best part of the entire event.

The ride itself was exceptionally organized and each night we were treated to a presentation by a challenged athlete. Among others, we met Sean a quadriplegic working with the fire department, Ricky a paraplegic who modified his motorbike so he could continue to race, and Scout an amputee who described being held under hot water while living in a Chinese orphanage. Because they all touched my life, and continue to do so, I wanted to share with you just a few experiences with these amazing athletes.

On the second day, from Santa Cruz to Big Sur I had the privilege of riding with Jim Penseyres. This guy is an absolute motor on the bike. Steady, smooth, and doesn’t quit. Not only is he 60 years old but he is also a decorated veteran. A two-time Purple Heart recipient and retired US Marine Corporal, Jim’s story is truly inspiring. In 1968, during the last month of his tour in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine and lost his leg below the knee.

This never deterred him from testing his limits as he has completed the RAAM (Race Across America) multiple times, his first in 1985. After riding across the country in a dozen days, I’m sure our little jaunt down the coast was easy for him. He made riding a pleasure and the miles quickly disappeared as I listened to him recount his racing history.

Day four and we left our hotel at Shell Beach for a 120-mile journey to Santa Barbara. Not even five miles out and one of the riders in our group had some mechanical trouble. Of the twenty or so riders with us, five stopped to help. As we worked to get his chain untangled and his derailleur adjusted he mentioned it had been acting up ever since he crashed in a recent race. “Yeah, I broke my arm in that race.” I turned to one of the other riders and mouthed the word “Badass” to him as he returned a wide-eyed nod.

A broken arm is nothing when you’re Andy Hatcher, member of the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. On Thanksgiving Day, 2004, in the second Battle of Fallujah, Andy was riding in a vehicle when it was hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The blast caused enough injuries to Andy’s leg that he had to have it amputated. So a broken arm and busted up bike were nothing. As soon as the bike was fixed, Andy was right back to it, attacking on climbs and screaming down every descent we encountered. Nothing held him back.

Day seven and we were almost home. It was the last day of the event and we were headed to La Jolla Shores for our final ride-in. Now over the week I got the chance to speak with one of our challenged athletes several times. But for some reason I never got the chance to ride with him because he always left before me. This last day was to be different – and certainly the most memorable. At the 68 mile mark, we started up Torrey Pines hill and came up to Anthony Smith stopped by the side of the road. Now this guy… well this guy warms my heart. And he is one tough dude with an incredible history.

On April 24, 2004, he was a captain with the Arkansas National Guard stationed near Baghdad when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The missile lodged in his right hip and exploded as his commanding officer ran toward him to help. His CO was cut in half. The explosion blew off Anthony’s right arm, ripped open his abdomen, destroyed a kidney, tore apart his intestines, and shattered his femur and right hip. The blast was so hot it melted his dog tags into his chest and burned his retinas.

Against all odds, he staggered to his feet while insurgents opened fire, shooting him four times. The medics reached Anthony to find no pulse and no sign of breathing. They listed him as killed in action and loaded him into a body bag. Then as they were zipping it up, they realized he was still alive.

Today, after 72 operations and procedures, he walks with a crutch (he may need to have his right foot amputated in the next several weeks) and has limited eyesight. Miracle after miracle keeps Anthony with us and we are fortunate to witness his resolve and courage.

We rode up to Anthony and asked if he needed some help getting re-started. So he mounted his bike and we gave him a push. Literally. One of the other group leaders got on Anthony’s left side. With a hand on Anthony’s left hip he began riding while pushing Anthony up the hill. I promptly began pushing the other group leader and together our little team made our way up Torrey Pines, a 1.5-mile long 6% grade.

And Anthony did it with a grin from ear to ear.

That is what the QMDC ride is all about. It isn’t about the beautiful roads, incredible scenery, or being able to stay in a nice hotel after spending several hours in the saddle. It’s about people overcoming challenges. It’s about people like Jim, Andy, and Anthony. And when guys like that turn to you and say you inspire them, it’s an unbelievable feeling. When challenged athletes come up to you and thank you for what you do, words cannot even be used to describe the experience and the emotion.

These athletes have overcome challenges that have been placed before them. From the hell of war to motorcycle accidents, to the atrocities of an orphanage on the other side of the World, they have overcome. They never complain about the cards life has dealt them. Instead, they find a way not just to survive and not just to make it through life but to truly live. They do the best they can with what they have been given and because of it they succeed every single time.

Just remember: the challenges you think you face pale in comparison. You have it easy. And the next time you are faced with what you think is an overwhelming obstacle, think of Anthony. And ask yourself, are you going to give up and give in to self-pity? Or will you fight it out and find a way to overcome?

Patrick Jak
USA Cycling Level II Coach
Certified Power Based Training Coach
The Challenged Athletes Foundation

“It is the mission of CAF to provide opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles though physical fitness and competitive athletics. CAF believes that involvement in sports at any level increases self-esteem, encourages independence and enhances quality of life. Since 1994, CAF has raised more than $16 million – allowing the Foundation to satisfy more than 3,300 funding requests from challenged athletes in all 50 states and in dozens of countries.

The money raised for the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge will help create a new Headquarters facility for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, unless otherwise directed by the donor, in which event, such donations will be applied towards the payment of additional handcycles, racing chairs, sports chairs and sports prosthetics for challenged athletes, as well as help subsidize their competition and training expenses.

To learn more visit

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