Small waves broke over the shell-filled shoreline of Virginia Key early Sunday morning, as Ileana Rodriguez, a 28-year-old Paralympian, was lifted from her wheelchair and placed into the ocean alongside hundreds of other swimmers.
“I feel like I’m just one more,” Rodriguez said. “Nobody sees differences in the water.”
Rodriguez was one of three disabled athletes who competed for the first time in the Tri-Miami Sprint Triathlon. The three — Javier Rodriguez and Angel Mulet — raced as a relay team, where Ileana swam, Javier rode the 10-mile bike leg and Angel ran the final three miles of the competition.
Ortho Pro Associates, a prosthetic and orthotic patient care facility in Kendall, sponsored the team. “We try to do very innovative things with our patients,” said Terri Sparber Bukacheski, founder and licensed prosthetist, “so they can return to as normal a life and carry on.”
Ileana was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation of the spine and became paralyzed from her waist down when she was 13. She uses her arms to propel her through the water. She competed as a swimmer in the Paralympian games in London in 2012.
“It’s great. I get off my wheelchair and I feel like I can encourage other people to get off their wheelchairs,” she said.
She wore a purple swim cap and sported bib number 402 in Sunday’s race, swimming freestyle for quarter of a mile in her first open-water triathlon. As she finished her swimming, Dave Giraldo, her assistant, raised her 103-pound body out of the water and unstrapped a timer chip from her ankle. Her time: 10:26.
Waiting by the checkpoint was Javier, 46, who lost his left leg below the knee in an accident involving a desk crashing onto his foot. He secured the timer onto his prosthetic leg and hopped on his bike. His time for the 10-mile ride: 45:34.
“Going for that finish line and saying, ‘Hey I made it once again,’ that’s almost like a religious experience,” he said.
As Javier reached the next checkpoint, Angel, 17, attached the team’s timer and began to dash. When he was born, he developed a blood clot in his leg, leading to the amputation of his left leg below the knee when he was 3 months old.
“While I was running I kept thinking, keep on going, keep on going,” said Angel, a graduating senior at G. Holmes Braddock High in West Kendall.
Barely two days after attending prom and taking the SAT, Angel crossed the finish line with a final team time of 1 hour, 40 minutes and 26 seconds.
When asked how it felt to be a physically challenged athlete, Angel replied with a smile: “It definitely is an ice breaker.”
The sense of encouragement resonated throughout Team Bionic as the three completed the race.
“Sometimes people think that if they get disabled or if they lose a limb, life is over. It’s actually not the case,” said Aldo Alvarez, clinical director and partner at Ortho Pro. “If you have the mind over matter, you can do pretty much anything you want.”