Incredible Veteran Athletes Find Their Injuries Don’t Hold Them Back

When you picture an elite athlete’s diet, you might not expect to see pork rinds, chili and bacon and eggs. But that’s exactly what fueled Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones last fall to one of his most incredible achievements — running 31 marathons in 31 cities in 31 days, all on two prosthetics. After all, he needed to consume upwards of 4,000 calories per day, and those dishes made it easier.

Ensuring adequate caloric intake was just one of the logistical challenges. With a support team that included his wife, Pamela Relph (a Paralympic medal-winner herself, for Great Britain), and mother, Carol Wire, Jones carefully planned his route and locations. He decided not to run officially organized races; instead he logged 26.2 miles per day in city parks and trails. He timed his travel to allow nine hours of sleep per night, adjusted his prosthetics to manage blisters, and kept his pace slow enough to reduce strain on his body.

When he completed the last run on Nov. 11 beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., he felt gratitude for the support — and for living in a country worth the effort.

“My purpose was to keep fighting for veterans and to be a positive example of what I was capable of doing,” he said. He and his team also raised more than $200,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

It’s just one of Jones’ major accomplishments since stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan led to his two above-the-knee amputations in 2010. Within two weeks of surgery, he set a goal to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, moving to Florida to train. Not only did he make the team, he and his rowing partner, Oksana Masters, won a bronze medal in sculling in London.

The next year, he took a 181-day, 5,180-mile bike ride across the country, a journey that raised $126,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and Ride 2 Recovery, all groups that support wounded veterans.

For Jones, sports serve a critical role for injured veterans. “It’s a great way to find out what you do when you’re challenged,” he said. “And if you tend to quit, you can work on persevering.”

In many ways, sports programs act as an extension of rehab, noted Leif Nelson, a physical therapist and director of the VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events. By training for running, cycling, rowing or other events, veterans build their cardiovascular conditioning, improve their overall health and restore strength and function to their bodies.

Then there are the psychosocial advantages. Individual or team sports provide veterans with a community, and perhaps most importantly, they imbue a sense of what’s still possible — even if their abilities have changed. “Life is different after injury, and adaptive sports can be an effective tool in helping folks redefine who they want to be,” Nelson said.

When those same activities also give veterans the opportunity to continue serving, often by fundraising or coaching others, those psychological benefits only multiply.

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