Disabilities don’t stop two South Florida marathon participants


Special to the Miami Herald

James Crews of Pembroke Pines and Danny Pitaluga of Kendall will be at the starting line on Biscayne Boulevard on Sunday for the Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, but these two athletes hold a nontraditional bond.

Crews and Pitaluga sustained major injuries after separate car accidents on rainy South Florida roads, which impacted their lives tremendously and ultimately led them to the starting line.

The two men didn’t give up after their injuries and became members of Achilles International, a worldwide organization encouraging people with disabilities to be athletes and take part in participant sports events, with a common belief that athletic achievement has a positive effect on all areas of their lives.

Fateful night

It was raining heavily on the night of Aug. 12, 2008, and Crews was on his way to the movies. When his car hit a puddle and hydroplaned, he lost control, spun and slammed rear end into a tree. When he regained consciousness, the teenager learned the world as he knew it was about to change.

Crews had been enjoying his summer following high school graduation, but it was time to get serious about his future. The day before his accident, the former Everglades High School baseball player had signed up for the Navy, enlisting as an intelligence technician.

But he sustained a traumatic brain injury to his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls the integration and coordination of movements.

He was introduced to Achilles after meeting regional coordinator Chris Holcomb at a rehabilitation center several years after his accident. Holcomb, an Achilles athlete himself, was volunteering at the facility and reached out to Crews.

“Chris encouraged me to try [hand-cycling],” Crews. “He told me to give it a shot.”

Crews, 23, fell in love with hand-cycles and marathons and now works out at the gym six days a week. On Sunday, he will be at the starting line for his fourth Miami Marathon.

His résumé shows a growing list of marathons. Locally, he has raced in the Palm Beaches Marathon three times, finishing eighth at last month’s 10th anniversary race. He has competed in the New York Marathon, the Washington, D.C., Marathon, and in March he will cross the Los Angeles Marathon off his to-do list.

Can-do spirit

Three days after the one-year anniversary of Crews’ accident, Pitaluga and a friend were on their way to pick up a pizza. It was raining, and the car hit a puddle and hydroplaned, crashing into a palm tree. The pair weren’t wearing seat belts.

“Whiplash broke my neck,” Pitaluga said.

The accident left him as a quadriplegic, but it didn’t break the college student’s spirit.

“I’m one of those guys, from the moment I was in the hospital, I was playing around with the nurses and therapists,” he said “I had a great support system. My family and loved ones carried me through.”

Despite his disability, he participates in rugby, billiards, kayaking, bowling, fishing, swimming, hand-cycling, and through the use of hand controls has learned to drive.

“I’ve done more now than I did before,” Pitaluga said. “I was self-centered. Everything was about me — my career, my dreams, my life. Now I’m giving back to my community.”

He is president of the Miami chapter of the Spinal Cord Injury Support Group. Sponsored by the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the group provides resources and emotional support to its 50-plus members.

Pitaluga, who was introduced to Achilles when he was first discharged from the hospital, captains Miami-Dade County’s Achilles hand-cycling group, leading practice sessions and helping develop the program.

He participated in his first marathon in 2010 and now has 12 under his belt — this will be his fifth Miami Marathon.

“People don’t realize how difficult it is to hand-cycle a marathon,” Pitaluga says. “It is a world of difference to propel a hand-cycle up a steep bridge. It is ridiculously challenging. You get to the end and say ‘OMG, I don’t want to do that again.’ 

The Achilles athletes have had a long-standing presence in the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, and this year’s race will include athletes from countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, France, Italy and Canada. The Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans will also have a team entered in the event.

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