Life Time South Beach Triathlon team stares down unusual challenges, makes it across the finish line

Kerry Gruson reaches the finish line of the Life Time South Beach Triathlon Sunday, April 6, 2014. With the help of her teammates, Gruson crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 23 seconds.
Kerry Gruson reaches the finish line of the Life Time South Beach Triathlon Sunday, April 6, 2014. With the help of her teammates, Gruson crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 23 seconds.

The wind smacked their faces. The waves pounded their kayak.

It was a difficult start for the ThumbsUp team of Cristina Ramirez and Kerry Gruson in Sunday’s 2014 Life Time South Beach Triathon, competing against 2,500 athletes who swam, biked and ran in the grueling race (half-mile swim, 20.7-mile bike ride, four-mile run).

Ramirez and Gruson had their own challenges. Ramirez, tethered to the kayak by a long strap, pulled Gruson, a quadriplegic, through the rough ocean chop. The waves kept breaking over the boat, causing Gruson, lying supine in the kayak, staring skyward, to swallow sea water.

“Not the best way to start a triathlon,” said Ramirez, 41. “I just didn’t want her to drown.”

Luckily, Liliana Montes swam behind the boat, redirecting the kayak every time a wave came close. She cut the angle so they flowed with the waves, not against them.

“Without her, we would have capsized,” Ramirez said of Montes’ swimming — and steering — prowess.

That easterly wind off the ocean hindered their bike ride. Ramirez, riding her Cannondale Slice trathlon bike, pulled Gruson, perched in a lightweight beach buggy behind the bike. The buggy had big wheels, a platform for Gruson’s legs to lie straight and a yellow canopy to protect her from the sun.

The wind, however, swished through the carrier and canopy, pushing it back as Ramirez tried to pull it forward. And they had to go over two bridges — west across the MacArthur and east over the Julia Tuttle — the wind surging through the carrier, propelling it like a parachute.

“It was the most challenging part of the race,” Ramirez said.

Then came the run, with the last 1.2 miles of the race on the sands of South Beach. Pushing the carrier across the sand was almost too much for Ramirez.

But she had help from the ThumbsUp team, who helped her push, and Leanda Cave, the British 2012 Ironman Triathlon winner. (An Ironman is the most grueling of the triathalons — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, a full marathon after the swim and bike ride.)

After Cave completed Sunday’s triathlon, she sought out the ThumbsUp team and ran with them on the beach.

“She kept saying, “Little steps, litle steps,’ ” urging Ramirez, who completed her own Ironman in November, to the finish line.

Their time: 3 hours and 23 seconds.

At the finish line, Gruson was greeted with a big blue and yellow banner: “Congratulations TeamThumbsUp! Kerry Gruson … you are a Triathlete.”

For Gruson, 66, the mission was not only for herself, but to inspire others to aim high despite one’s disabilities. In 1974, Gruson, then a cub reporter, was interviewing a former Green Beret vet about his Vietnam War experiences, when, in a PTSD episode, he decided she was a member of the Viet Cong and attempted to strangle her, leaving her for dead in her Honolulu hotel room.

At 26, she was paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair — the result of oxygen deprivation to her brain after the attack. (He was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.)

On Sunday, that was a world away. As Ramirez swam, Gruson, in the kayak, heard a comment from behind the boat. She could not turn her head to see.

“I have two kids with disabilities. Thank you for doing this!” the voice said.

“Water rushes into my mouth and up my nose,” Gruson wrote after the race. “It hurts but I pay it no mind. More clearly than ever, I know why I am participating. And if it were easy, if there was no price to pay, this would have very little meaning.”

She paid tribute to Ramirez and the ThumbsUp team, particularly those who helped push during that last mile.

“Today’s extra enjoyment and thrill comes from the fact that many pushed my cart and thus got to share directly in our triumph … as much a tribute to Christina’s generosity of spirit as it was a necessity to get us to the finish through the heavy sand.

“I am overwelmed by gratitude — and humility. At the same time, I am so proud of her, of everyone, and yes, of myself!

“Today I became a triathlete.”

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