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Munson: Disabled riders push ahead, with a bit of volunteer aid



Colfax, Ia. — This is Mark Block’s fourth RAGBRAI, 25 years after his first three rides.

I met Block on Thursday morning when he pedaled by hand to the side of the street in downtown Colfax in search of a cooling neck band.

“My biggest nemesis is the heat,” he said.

Most of the 10,000 official riders on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa might agree, but we’re talking more than mere annoyance for Block, 45, who lives in Ankeny.

He’s had two spinal cord injuries. Twenty-five years ago after a car accident, he turned 21 in the hospital and was told he would never walk again. He began walking within two months.

But then two years ago Block fell and hit his head, bruising his spine and suffering a mild traumatic brain injury.

Now, he has trouble feeling below his chest. His body temperature and blood pressure are prone to wild fluctuations. His vision gets blurry, and he loses balance.

So Paul Lantz of West Des Moines and Andrea Baumgartner of St. Louis were on hand in Colfax to provide support for Block as one of a dozen disabled riders this week on the inaugural Adaptive Sports Iowa RAGBRAI team.

“Volunteering for this, it’s one of those deals where you get way more than what you give,” Lantz said.

The team is led by executive director Mike Boone, 29, whose inspiration began with his dad, Charles, who went blind from type-1 diabetes by the time Boone was 2. Charles later died from complications of his diabetes in 1991.

Boone himself is a healthy sports nut who was raised north of Denver, Colo., but eventually made his way to Iowa to earn a master’s degree in public administration at Drake University. He and his wife, Joni, live in Ankeny and just welcomed their first child five weeks ago, daughter Jani Eileen.

Boone came from a state where every ski resort had some sort of program and adaptive equipment for the disabled. So he saw a need in Iowa, as well as an opportunity to merge his passions for sport and work with the disabled.

His original brainstorm was to found a nonprofit to create local recreational sports for the disabled. But a chain of networking led him and his program to be taken under the wing of the Iowa Sports Foundation of Ames, and he began working as full-time director in December.

Team members include Vern Willey, a dynamo who’s ridden “somewhere around 20” RAGBRAIs and logs 4,000 handbike miles per year.

But Thursday was a little tough, even for him: He was part of the RAGBRAI committee in Altoona, where he lives, and stayed up until 1 a.m. having fun before he woke up 3½ hours later to ride.

Willey, 61, broke his back and injured his spinal cord in 1997 when he flipped over the front handlebars of his bicycle outside of Dubuque – during mile 101 of a 106-mile ride.

But six months later to the day, Willey was skiing on a Colorado mountain. And he rode the same bike ride the following year.

I didn’t dare try to keep up with him, but I did trail Mario Bennett and Eric Kinman for a short stretch.

Bennett, 34, was stricken with polio at 10 months old and also pedals a handbike.

Kinman, meanwhile, is one of the volunteers who has divided his time this week riding alongside Bennett and also on a tandem with blind bicyclist Tai Blas.

Wednesday was a good day for Bennett: the first day he completed an entire leg of RAGBRAI.

He loves hearing the encouragement shouted by fellow riders:

• “Hey, low-rider!”

• “You’re an inspiration!”

• “Go, Adaptive Sports!”

Thursday’s hill rolling out of Colfax, however, was monstrous. I walked it.

Bennett put up a valiant fight as Kinman coached him with how to shift down through the bike’s 27 gears. But Bennett snapped his front brake cable, so the pair had to turn around for repairs.

One killer hill can be a temporary obstacle, but the theme of this RAGBRAI debut for Adaptive Sports Iowa seems to be all about pushing ahead. The team is gaining momentum.

Blas, for instance, is headed this fall to law school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Bennett also plays wheel basketball every Thursday in Ankeny — another of Boone’s adaptive programs.

Boone is putting together a team to compete in a world series for blind baseball players next year in Ames.

Block, meanwhile, said this RAGBRAI ride “has more meaning than any of them for me.”

But he also reacts to this rolling circus just like the rest of us: “The nice thing about this whole event is the people you meet,” he said.

No matter how we pedal, we’re all just sweaty, sore people.

4 Responses on “Munson: Disabled riders push ahead, with a bit of volunteer aid

Rose Farver

July 29, 2011 at 7:58 am

I’m proud to be Vernon Willey’s niece. He’s an inspiration to his family!

Linda Munson

July 29, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Drew Campbell of Gifford is riding RAGBRAI for the first time in three years due to Lyme disease. We are so proud of his success. Keep on pedaling Drew, and all the other amazing athletes.

Carolyn DeCora

July 30, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Way to go Mario, very proud of you cuz.

Laurie Gillard

July 31, 2011 at 7:44 am

I was so impressed by the adaptive riders~they were out on the road with all the others and just cranking along with the best of them. They certainly looked great in their jerseys!

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