Cycling helped veteran through depression
Depression and anger.
That can be the ruthless, cruel result of an improvised explosive device.
Tom Davis was smiling on Saturday. A satisfied smile tinged with tremendous fatigue.
He glances at his hand-cycle as he talks about that IED that blew apart his life back in 2006.
“I was always an athlete, I grew up running track and cross country, all the way through college,” he said. “I always had an active lifestyle and that’s one of the reasons I joined the Army.”
He knows he’s lucky to be alive after the explosion. The result of that device placed on the side of a road in Iraq is numbing to think about: Left leg amputated above the knee, fractured right knee, back broken, both arms broken, fractured the back of his skull, massive loss of blood and a brain injury.
His voice brightens as he talks about the grueling road race at the USA Cycling Para-cycling National Championships on Purdy Mesa.
“This is probably one of the toughest courses I’ve ever ridden,” the five-time national road racer said. “This long, grinding climb up Purdy Mesa, that was so tough for us (hand-cyclists).”
Davis, 40, from Fremont, Indiana, raced virtually all day — 53K (33 miles) — with his friend and teammate Freddie De Los Santos from New York.
The 47-year-old also had problems with depression and didn’t really care about living after his legs were amputated from an accident in Afghanistan in 2009.
“I went though some very bad depression and contemplated suicide many times,” he said.
He offers a nod at his hand-cycle and readily admits that cycling saved his life.
“It helped give me independence and it helps me cope with things so much better,” he said. “It helps me to decompress, it helps me mentally when things aren’t going well.”
On Saturday, De Los Santos and Davis rode mile after mile, inches apart, drafting off one another on the breezy and physically demanding Purdy Mesa course.
“We had a plan where he’d pull me along on the uphills, that’s his strong point, and I’d pull him on the downhill and flatter sections, that’s my strength,” Davis said.
After a bout with food poisoning this week, De Los Santos wasn’t sure if he had the strength to ride. But he did.
“The course was very tough,” he said with a grin. “I’m a kneeler, so I can used my upper body, my core, my shoulders, my arms, so it’s easier. Tom is lying flat, so that’s much harder.”
The two raced for the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets cycling team.
Both are now far removed from their depression and anger, and both are thankful they were introduced to cycling.
“It’s amazing,” De Los Santos said about the race. “To be here, with my friends, to be part of this, it’s amazing. It’s a good way for me to tell how far I can take my recovery since I got wounded in Afghanistan.”
The para-cycling nationals are filled with cyclists from all over the nation who have physical disabilities, many coming from military injuries, which resulted in them being introduced to cycling through their long physical therapy rehabilitation.
“I was introduced to a hand-cycle at Walter Reed (Hospital) in physical therapy for one day. The first time I got on it, I just rode it around outside the hospital a little,” Davis said, then smiled. “I was like a kid on Christmas Day. It was amazing and I said I gotta get me one of these.”
But cycling didn’t really latch hold for Davis at first. He recovered from many of his injuries but he was never completely healed.
He didn’t lose his leg until more than a month after the explosion but he knew there was no other choice.
“The pain was just unbelievable, I just said take it,” he said about his leg.
But he was still active. Then his other leg and back grew more painful.
After going through so much, so much pain, so much frustration, his mental state deteriorated more as the pain grew worse.
He was finding it more difficult to spend time with his kids.
“I went through about a year of anger and depression,” he said. “Then one day I decided to go get the hand-cycle out of the shed, it had been sitting in there for about three years. I’ve been riding it ever since.”
That was 2011.
“(It was difficult) being with my kids, being able to play with them and do things with them,” he said. “(The hand-cycle) definitely helped get me my legs back pretty much.”
De Los Santos was also introduced to a hand-cycle at Walter Reed, where he was for nearly two years. The double amputee had never been on a bicycle before.
“Never, never in my life, now, it’s amazing to be able to ride,” he said.
They both relished in a long, difficult day of racing. As they reattached their prosthetics, they swapped stories about their race with other para-cyclists. Smiling and laughing about a memorable day.
Both Davis and De Los Santos won national titles in their para categories.