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Human Race: Joe Berenyi

Joe Berenyi knows what it’s like to have the entire arc of your life change in an instant.

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Joe Berenyi knows what it’s like to have the entire arc of your life change in an instant. In his case, it was a drizzly Friday morning in August of 1994 — he was working in construction, about to head out at lunch to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring, thinking about racing his bike the following day in the legendary criterium at Downers Grove.

Words: Peter Flax | Image: Casey Gibson

One second the ironworker was up in the air setting a steel beam in place and the next he was tumbling toward earth. The beam had failed. He fell 40 feet and was hammered by the heavy steel. There is no delicate way to put what happened next: His right arm was severed and his left leg was pulverized. The ambulance that was dispatched to get him got stuck in the mud at the construction site, so he had to lie there — screaming, with coworkers applying pressure to his right shoulder — until a helicopter could arrive and transport him to the hospital.

Berenyi says he spent two weeks in and out of the operating room. “I had a different surgery nearly every day,” he recalls. “The doctors worked really hard to save my leg.”

You don’t really recover from these kinds of injuries as much as you weather them. After that hospital stint came months in a wheel chair and a year on the couch, skin grafts and knee surgeries, hard times that are difficult to recount to a stranger.

Honestly, he didn’t think about cycling for a good long time, and years passed. He had to learn to walk again, to get his life back on track. But a local shop — Berenyi, how 48, lives in Aurora, Illinois — modified a mountain bike so he could ride with one arm. Still, he was overweight and out of shape, a guy with one arm and a bum leg who hadn’t ridden in more than a decade. So the bike just sat in the garage.

Then one day in 2007, he decided to join a neighbor and a friend for a ride on a local bike path. “These guys did not take it easy on me and I was determined not to get dropped,” Berenyi says. “It was one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done.”

He kept at it. Berenyi eventually started joining a nearby CompuTrainer competition and then did his first outdoor race early in 2009. He was just competing with able-bodied local cyclists in crits and road races. “Back in 2009, I didn’t even know what the Paralympics were,” he says.

That would change quickly. He hooked up with a coach who had experience with disabled athletes. Berenyi’s first ride at the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Road National Championship came the following year, and he wound up winning a silver medal in the crit. Invitations to World Cup events followed, and a gravitation toward track disciplines followed. “I love time trialing,” says Berenyi, who races in the C3 category (for competitors with amputations and limb impairments). “Obviously, these are hard events but for me the hardest thing may be getting into the aero position on a time-trial bike.”

The real breakthrough came in 2012 at the Paralympic Games in London. He came in hoping to win bronze in one event and came out with three medals. He won gold in the pursuit, setting a C3 world record (3:36.148) for the 3-kilometer distance. “A gold medal was totally unexpected,” he says. Berenyi got to stand atop a podium and hear the national anthem with his parents, his wife (the same woman he had hoped to give a ring to in August 1994), and three daughters in attendance.

While he says that having his family at the Paralympics “to experience it with me was really special,” he also admits that he struggled to digest what he had accomplished. But then his youngest daughter, who was in third grade at the time, wrote a school report about what her daddy had done in London. “That’s when the emotional weight of it really hit me,” he says. “I’d come such a long way. I had spent weeks in a hospital bed and a year sitting on a couch watching TV. I suddenly realized how big a deal it was, how much work I had put into it.”

But there was more work to be done, more injuries to overcome. Berenyi suffered a bad crash in a 2013 World Cup event, breaking his shoulder and hurting his already jury-rigged knee. Still, he won pursuit silver at the 2014 World Championship and then three medals the following year, including gold in time trial and the pursuit.

The accolades came off the track, too. He was nominated for an ESPY, spent time in Los Angeles hobnobbing with Charles Barkley, Clayton Kershaw, and Shaquille O’Neil. He struck up a friendship with Tommie Smith, the Olympic legend from 1968, that the two have maintained since then. “The experiences that cycling has given me are just beyond belief sometimes,” he says.

Although he has cut back a bit on this training and traveling so he can spend more time with his daughters, Berenyi has no plans to stop racing. He won a silver medal last year at the Paralympics in Rio and has been riding the World Cup circuit in 2017, winning pursuit bronze in a mid-May UCI event in Belgium. “I will do this for as long as I can,” he says, targeting the World Championships in South Africa in late August as his big goal for the year. “There are things I literally can’t do. I can’t run and I can’t clap. But I can race a bike. So as long as I can line up with guys half my age and compete, I don’t see any reason to stop.”

He attributes much of his success and longevity in the sport to his passion for riding. Many top Paralympic cyclists are steered toward the sport because it fits their abilities and disabilities, but Berenyi has loved bikes all along. “I like so much about riding,” he says. “I like that it’s at once a loner’s sport and an activity that offers so much comradery. And I like to jump in open races and know that no one will give me special treatment, that people still bump me and ride shoulder to shoulder and that no one is going to let me ride off the front.”

Berenyi admits that he’s been riding with one arm so long that rarely even thinks about it. “But then I see my shadow and I remember,” he says, drawn into a contemplative moment about all that he has lost and gained in the aftermath of that accident in 1994.

“Someone once asked me which I’d rather have: Both of my arms or that gold medal?” he says. “I couldn’t really answer it then and I can’t answer it now. Sure, I wish I was totally whole but cycling has given me this incredible life and I’m grateful for that.”