Project Hero: The Injured Veterans 'Ride 2 Recovery'
In September of last year, Project Hero (fka Ride 2 Recovery) made a stop on the Central Coast of California. I was invited to their big BBQ dinner put on by the Kiwanis Club to meet a couple of the riders on the journey. Every cyclist taking part in this seven day cycling tour has served in the US Military and got involved with Project Hero as a means of combatting mental illness in the face of recovery and return from active duty. Three of the many women in this crusade that I was lucky to have spoken with told me more about the background and mission of Project Hero. I first spoke with Beatriz Alesantos who began riding with Project Hero in 2013 and has now been working for them for the last year. The second interview in this feature is from Shawn Morelli and Katie Kiper, two military professionals whose lives were shaken and now exude perseverance, strength and hope to keep on going with purpose.
Beatriz: I was in the Military for 4 years when I got a hip injury and I was in the WTU, which is the War Transition Unit. They help you transition from Military life to Civilian life.
Cari: Was that a big transition for you?
B: It was, yes, but it wasn’t as big as some other people who would join later in life, not straight out of high school. I was already done with getting my bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t as hard as some people who leave home with mom and dad to go straight into the military so it’s a little more difficult for them to transition because they lose that structure. You go from your mom and dad telling you what to do, to the military telling you what to do and then you’re on your own. So for them, it’s a little bit more difficult.
For me, I’d already been on my own before joining so it wasn’t as difficult but it was in the sense that I wanted to make a career out of the military and then I got injured. I wanted to continue being on active service for 20 years, which is retirement in the military. Then I got injured and I was barely able to walk. I wasn’t able to sit without pain, even laying down was very uncomfortable.
C: And here we are seeing you now!
B: Yeah, we just rode 53 miles today!
C: Would you have ever imagined you’d have been able to do that?
B: No, no, especially when I was injured. I was depressed, on a bunch of medication and seeing a psychiatrist. So when the Transition Unit introduced me to cycling there, just around the base doing 5 to 10 miles at first, it increased to like 20 miles and then they told me about the program which was called Ride 2 Recovery, now called Project Hero. They do challenges which is what we’re doing now. We started Palo Alto and end in Santa Monica on Saturday, so 6 or 7 day challenges.
C: Do you have to do much training for this?
B: Yes, well it gives you this kind of motivation every morning knowing “Okay, I have to get up and train for this because they’re gonna expect me to be able to climb hills and do all this stuff.” It gave me a sense of purpose again, being able to do something as well as other people with my hip injury. I mean, there are people here who have all kinds of different injuries. From amputations and stuff like that, they’re out here cycling too.
C: Do you get to hang out and speak with the other riders on this trip?
B: We ride on average 50 miles a day, yesterday was 100 miles and a lot of climbing so I can feel it right now, my legs are sore but I push through it. Everyone here is very helpful, they give you a hand- literally put their hand on your back and help you get up the hills if you can’t do it by yourself.
So, I was introduced to the program, they told me about the challenges and I didn’t think I was ready. It was like two months until the challenge so I had to train and it was hard but I got accepted to the challenge. The first one I did was the Gulf Coast Challenge, we finished in Florida and the program changed my life. Just that one challenge even, it changed my life completely. Before that, I was suicidal, depressed, everything. Ever since I was training, I started to get off of my medication because I wasn’t depressed anymore. I wasn’t in pain as much anymore because I was finally able to move and use my hip. That was 2013 and ever since then I have been with the program. Just last year, he hired me so I’m here today as staff.
C: Did you do the ride this time as well?
B: Yes, I ride along with them as a support rider. We all talk as we ride, like I said before we give each other a hand if we need it, it’s a family. There’s people in this challenge that haven’t been here for a couple of years and when they come back everyone’s all, “I can’t believe you’re here! It’s been forever!” It’s amazing. I’m not sure what else to say about the program, if you talk to anyone else they’ll tell you the program has changed their life for the better.
We have a Women’s Initiative as well, they’re 5 day challenges. Instead of cycling from one place to another, we’ll stay in one place and cycle out but return to the starting point. It’s just for women!
Shawn Morelli & Katie Kiper
C: How many tours have you done so far?
Katie: I started cycling at the end of 2013, beginning of 2014 to train for another Ride 2 Recovery event. So 5 or 6.
Shawn: I started riding with them in 2010 so I’ve done quite a few now.
C: Can you share a little bit about what you’ve been through and how you came to ride with Project Hero?
K: They had someone getting me involved in sports while I was recovering and I guess I liked cycling the best so I started focusing on doing that. They had other sports also but cycling is the best so I kept at it.
S: When I was recovering from my injuries, they put me in therapy right away. Like, basically, I woke up and the next thing I’m in a pool learning to walk again, using my arm and my leg again. I was super depressed for a long time because I was being told everything I couldn’t do in life. I wasn’t going to be able to run, play soccer, I was going to lose my career in the military, every doctor was saying what I can’t do. I had one therapist that said, “Hey, let’s try riding a bike.” And I was like, I don’t ride bikes. I run marathons and I play soccer. “No, no, no. Let’s just try riding a bike.” So, it took me a couple years to learn how to ride a bike because I have balance issues and similar to Katie, I don’t have vision in one eye. I had a lot of different things I had to balance and challenge me into riding that bike again. The therapist was like, “Come on, you can do it. You can do it.” It took me like two and a half years to learn how to balance and ride a bike again. And then after that I just took off down the road. I got involved with a local ride group, they took me on rides and taught me race techniques. In 2010, I met John Wordin and Ride 2 Recovery at the Warrior Games which takes people who have been injured in different wars. It’s kind of like the Olympics but way scaled down. So I met JW there and he was like, “We gotta keep you on the bike.” He invited me to a challenge and then I kept going from there.
C: What would you say to someone who is facing physical or mental barriers to their sporting potential?
K: I think that for women, it can be intimidating to start in a sport, cycling especially, but you just have to keep doing it. Like, if you start cycling and you don’t enjoy it, there’s other sports. The thing is to try and stick with something because when you’re recovering everyone is always amazed at how much I do but what’s my other option… laying in bed? So, I think that’s something that happens when you’re injured. You have a choice to make.
S: I think for women in sport or for an athlete or someone in the military or a first responder who’s been injured and is trying to get their life back, they have to make that key decision of “I’m not going to let this obstacle stop me.” And then they need to decide “I’m just going to power through, figure it out and make it happen.” It’s the same with sport, my parents never said I couldn’t do anything. It was always, “You can play soccer. You can play football. Yeah, go ahead! Give it a try.” I think that instilled an aspect into my life when it comes to sport or anything else that I can do anything. Now I think all women need to have that mindset of, you know, we’re not any different. We can do whatever we want to do when we put our mind to it. We can bust through whatever obstacle or barrier that’s in front of us if we make the decision that what’s on the other side is worth it. So, my advice to people is to put your head down and knock through that obstacle and get to your goal, your dreams.
C: Can you tell us about your fondest memory or standout moment within cycling that made you realize, “Yep, this is why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
K: Well, there’s a lot. Cycling is really enjoyable and these events are really cool- especially California. But my standout moment was probably at my first Warrior Games, I did really well and I think I shocked people who didn’t think I’d do that well. I felt really good about it and that yeah, maybe I can do this. And that’s when I became more interested in really racing.
S: My most memorable moment on the bike would be winning a Gold Medal for the United States of America, I think it’s hard to top. Especially when your family is in the crowd and cheering for you. What started that dream and what got me to that dream was this organization. John Wordin and Ride 2 Recovery helping me to overcome a lot of the barriers that I perceived to be in front of me, whether they were really there or not. Without this organization I wouldn’t have got the gold medal. So I think the best moment was probably meeting JW and getting involved with Ride 2 Recovery because it spring-boarded me to the gold medal.
C: Would you have ever expected to find yourself on that journey?
S: No, no. Because where I grew up in Pennsylvania you didn’t ride a bike and you especially didn’t wear spandex! I never would have dreamed it. I always thought I’d go to the Olympics as a soccer player, not a cyclist. Things will happen in your life that change your goals but you just set new ones and keep going.
K: Same here!