It takes two powerful swimmers to hoist Kerry Gruson under her arms out of her beach buggy, positioning her prone body into the kayak. They gently lower her, as if she were reclining on a lounge chair. They tilt her head back, place a life preserver around her neck and secure her into the boat, where she lies nearly flat, her eyes staring skyward.
And that’s the easy part.
Cristina Ramirez, tethered to the boat with a long strap, will pull the 100-pound Gruson and the 30-pound kayak through the Atlantic Ocean, swimming freestyle for a half mile. Ramirez’s swimming coach, Liliana Montes, will swim from behind, spotting and keeping the kayak from fishtailing.
The three are part of the ThumbsUp team — Gruson’s signature sign — and will compete Sunday in the South Beach Triathlon, a half-mile swim, 20.7-mile bicycle leg and four-mile run — over two bridges.
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“Kerry is going to be a triathlete and I will be her able body,” says Ramirez, a 41-year-old mother of two.
Until four years ago, Ramirez’s quest to do a triathlon would have been as unthinkable as a snow day in Miami. She was overweight, smoked a pack a day and drank.
“I’ve come a long way,” said Ramirez, who is 5-9 and sports a sleek and sculpted body, with well-defined leg muscles.
Ramirez has met her equal in Gruson, who in 1974, as a 26-year-old cub reporter, was interviewing a former Green Beret about his Vietnam War days. In a PTSD flashback, he was convinced she was a member of the Viet Cong, attempted to strangle her and left her for dead in her Wakiki hotel room. The attack left her unable to move her legs, limited her arm movement, rendered her voice whisperlike and cocked her head permanently to one side — the result of oxygen deprivation to the brain.
But, amazingly, the attack left her intellect intact. She went on to become a New York Times writer — and with the help of her mother, Flora Lewis, the famed New York Times columnist, wrote a piece about the incident in the Sunday Times magazine.
To escape the cold, she moved to Miami in 1976. She joined Shake-A-Leg Miami, where she developed a passion for sailing, winning several world sailing competitions, including those against able-bodied competitors. (A custom-designed chair and pulley system allow Gruson to slide with ease from one side of her boat to the other, giving her quick access to sheets — lines — that control the sails and the boom.)
It was through Shake-A-Leg, a non-profit organization that helps people of all abilities enjoy sailing and other water sports, where Gruson and Ramirez connected. Gruson had been the board chairman of Shake-A-Leg.
“They are a perfect match,” said Andreas Heuser, a certified USA cycling coach. “Kerry’s energy is tremendous — sometimes I think it’s more than some of the professional athletes I train.”
Ramirez has competed in triathlons before, but never like this. After the swim, Ramirez and Montes will lift Gruson out of the kayak and place her into a specially designed carrier with a bright yellow canopy and big wheels. Ramirez, riding her Cannondale Slice triathlon bike, will pull Gruson for the 20.7-mile bike ride. She will then push Gruson in the carrier for the four-mile final run.
“I told Kerry from the beginning that I have no idea what I’m doing on this one,” Ramirez said. “But any obstacle that I put in front of her, she said: ‘No problem. Let’s do it.’ ’’
Four years ago, Ramirez, by her own admission, was a mess.
She couldn’t run around the block without stopping or gasping for air.
“I had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 15 years, I ate a lot, and I drank a lot for about 20 years,” said Ramirez, who speaks five languages, has lived in Brazil, Morocco and Chile and at one time worked on Wall Street. “Those bad habits take a toll on your body. I’ve never been an athlete or someone who lived a healthy lifestyle.”
With two young sons and at least 20 pounds overweight, Ramirez knew she needed to change: She had a vision of taking her kids hiking and biking.
She began running.
“I couldn’t even run around the block,’’ she said.
She ran a 5K and soon after, a friend suggested she get involved with triathlons. The “easiest” such race is the sprint triathlon, which consists of a half-mile swim, a 10-mile bike run and a 3.1-mile run. Key Biscayne was hosting one in June 2010.
“I thought I was going to die,” Ramirez said. “But the day I finally finished one, I got home and told my husband: ‘I did it!’ ”
Ramirez’s passion for competing led her to begin a blog, TriathlonMami.com, in June 2012. A year later, she quit her job as a teacher to pursue her blog and triathlon training.
Last November, Ramirez completed an Ironman Triathlon in Panama City — the most grueling of the triathlons. In an Ironman, competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. It’s running a full marathon, after an exhausting swim and draining bike ride.
Her time: 13 hours and 42 minutes.
During the race, she noticed a visually impaired woman competing. When she returned home, she immediately reached out to Shake-A-Leg to see if she could partner with a disabled athlete for a triathlon.
“I know it sounds kooky, but I knew I had to do this for someone else,” she said. “I wanted to help someone who couldn’t experience this on their own and allow them to feel how great it is to cross that finish line.”
Shake-A-Leg emailed Gruson, who e-mailed back in five minutes: ‘‘Yes!’’
Harry Horgan, the president and founder of Shake-A-Leg Miami, has known Gruson for 20 years, introducing her to sailing. Horgan — who was flung out of a car when he was 22, broke his back and suffered a spinal injury that left him in a wheelchair — believes Gruson and Ramirez are ideal partners.
“Kerry is adventurous — she likes challenges,” Horgan said. “And for Cristina, Kerry is great because she is light and durable. I think Kerry can be a role model for other women with disabilities who want to find their passion, build friendships and pursue life.’’
Gruson was born in London and lived as a child in the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. She attended a French school and speaks English, Spanish, French and German. She is a Harvard graduate.
Her mother, Flora Lewis, who died of cancer in 2002, was a trail-blazing foreign correspondent. She worked for the Washington Post and New York Times, among other news organizations, before joining the Times in 1972 as Paris bureau chief. She eventually became the paper’s foreign affairs columnist, a prestigious spot on the Op-Ed page.
Gruson’s father, Sydney Gruson, who died in 1998 from kidney and heart illnesses, was also an accomplished journalist. Due to family financial problems, he was forced to quit school at age 12, becoming a bellboy.
He took a job as an office boy with the Canadian Press news agency, and quickly began writing stories. In 1944, he joined The Times, where he would become a foreign correspondent, notably covering the anti-Stalinist uprising in Poland in 1956.
Her parents, who eventually divorced, were often gone due to frequent travel and long hours. Gruson said her memories, however, were of her parents’ presence — not their absence.
Gruson said her mother was the more “intellectual” of the two while her father was more approachable.
“Mum would spend long hours explaining world politics to us,” said Gruson, the oldest of the couple’s three children. “She treated everyone, especially her children, as intellectual equals.
“As soon as we were old enough, we’d join our parents at dinner. Guests would often include other journalists or people my parents were interviewing. We were encouraged to participate, to be curious about the world. Conversation was always lively. Very little was taboo. I can’t remember either of them refusing to answer one of our questions.”
Gruson, too, became a reporter, working for the Harvard Crimson and Boston Phoenix in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, during the height of the Vietnam War. In March 1974, she had drawn an assignment to go to Vietnam as a free-lancer for the Boston Globe and several big-city newspapers, reporting on the war’s aftermath.
On her way to Southeast Asia, Gruson stopped in Hawaii, where she interviewed a Vietnam War veteran who had been a Green Beret. During the interview, the veteran had a PTSD flashback and attempted to strangle Gruson, thinking she was an enemy soldier of the Viet Cong.
Here’s how Gruson described the incident in a piece called, The Long Road Back, published in the Sunday Times magazine, June 30, 1985:
“I don’t remember meeting my attacker, I don’t remember the attack and I don’t remember stumbling out of my Waikiki hotel room, which is initially what saved my life. Later, my mother, who is also a journalist, pieced together some of the details of what I have come to refer to as my ‘accident.’ She said a policeman saw me weaving down the boulevard, stumbling from one tree to the next. Thinking I was on a bad drug trip, he took me to Honolulu’s main hospital.
“The admitting doctor noticed the finger marks around my neck. But there was little he could do. Strangulation does more than cut off breathing. The pressure on the blood vessels in the neck shuts off the brain’s supply of blood and, therefore, of oxygen. Most victims of strangulation who survive the initial assault at first seem to recover, only to relapse or die about a week later as the bruised brain deteriorates.”
At 26, she became paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair or walker.
Her attacker was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, and Gruson harbors no bitterness. She considers her attacker to be a victim of the war.
After the attack, she continued her writing career, working out of The Times’ Miami bureau for 27 years until retiring in 2005.
Gruson, who was married for seven years before getting divorced, lives in downtown Miami, not far from Ramirez’s Key Biscayne home. The two have formed a fast friendship.
“She’s made a huge difference for me,” Gruson said of Ramirez. “This has been a wonderful experience. Everywhere we go, people ask: ‘How can I help?’ ’’
In terms of their time, Gruson and Ramirez have no shot of winning the South Beach Triathlon. But victory is not just about crossing the finish line first.
The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce recently honored Gruson as the Philanthropist Business Woman of the Year and Ramirez just won the 2014 3M Positive Impact Award, which honors 20 “regular individuals” who work for a greater good.
Gruson and Ramirez partnered for a 5K in February, but this is their first triathlon.
“What surprises me is that she could be this resentful, angry person because of this injustice that happened to her — but she’s not,” Ramirez said. “Her spirit is 100 percent intact. ‘No’ is not in her vocabulary. She’s been a great teacher for me.”