Eric McElvenny never asks, “Why me?”
While he has had his dreams crushed more than once, the Bethel Park resident remains optimistic regarding his reality.
McElvenny is a former U.S. Marine who lost a limb in battle. Because of the global pandemic, he is an unemployed motivational speaker. And, he is a triathlete whose dreams of participating in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo evaporated because of the coronavirus crisis. The worldwide event has been postponed until next August.
“It’s a tough time for everybody,” McElvenny stressed. “People are experiencing fear for their health and their families. There’s a lot of stress due to loss of employment and financial security.
“We all face challenges and adversity,” he conceded. “It’s how we embrace obstacles and overcome them that we grow. For me, it’s about setting goals, staying positive and pushing forward.”
For 37 years, McElvenny has adhered to those three precepts.
Athletically, he always set goals and pushed himself beyond all limits. McElvenny embarked on his competitive career in football and baseball at Belle Vernon High School. He earned all-conference honors as a defensive back and all-section acclaim as a shortstop.
After spending a year at a prep school in Rhode Island, McElvenny received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. For three years, he played baseball and rugby for the Midshipmen.
Upon graduation in 2006, he was assigned to the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia for officer and infantry training. Assigned to Camp Pendleton in San Diego in 2007, he was attached to the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines, and was deployed overseas three times.
After seven-month stints aboard a ship in southeast Asia in 2008 and in the Middle East in 2010, he was wounded in Afghanistan. While leading a small team of four, embedded with an Afghan Army company on a routine patrol, McElvenny stepped on an IED.
The explosion triggered life-altering events. McElvenny lost his right leg, amputated about four inches below his knee. His left leg was damaged by shrapnel. Approximately two months after the December 2011 incident, McElvenny was fitted with a carbon-fiber prosthetic leg.
“When I was injured, my wonderful family helped me realize that certain things don’t change,” McElvenny said, referencing his upbeat personality and determination. “I was still the same person.
“Through sports, strong character developed in me. It came out in me and helped me get through the tragic times. ‘OK,’ I told myself, ‘I’m disabled. Now what? Now what do I do?’”
Become an Ironman. That was McElvenny’s answer.
Within six months, he competed in his first triathlon – a sprint event featuring a 750-meter swim, 18-mile bike race and 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run. He has since competed in 50 more such races. In addition, he has completed eight Ironman Triathlons. Much longer events, the competitions consist of a 2.4-mile swim, 120-mile cycle and marathon run (26.2 miles).
“When I lost my leg, I wanted to set a big goal. Accomplish something big,” McElvenny said.
After several years of competing in able-bodied marathons and triathlons, McElvenny heeded the advice of a friendly rival and started training for the Paralympics. While he was eligible for the Summer Games in Rio, McElvenny did not try to qualify in 2016.
“My buddy, against whom I raced, told me, ‘Eric, you know you are a good athlete. Stop what you are doing and see if you can make it as a paralympian.’
“Everybody needs a good why. A purpose to commit to something,” McElvenny. “I served our country in uniform as a marine. Now I have an opportunity to serve my country in uniform as an athlete. I still get to represent my country. That was a part of my reason. It served a purpose. But, I had to try or I would regret not trying.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic put the country in lockdown, McElvenny traveled the globe attempting to earn enough qualifying points to make the U.S. team. He footed his own bills. For example, a trip to Australia for a race in February cost approximately $3,500. Peter Harsch, who makes prosthetics, helped with airline fees. McElvenny has qualifying races and trips scheduled for the fall in Spain and Portugal.
After last year’s competitions, McElvenny was ranked among the top 16 competitors with below-knee or below-elbow amputations. With one or two good races this year, he expected to jump into the top 10. However, only the top nine acquire automatic spots. A few others may be extended invitations to compete.
“It’s really competitive,” McElvenny noted.
Because he is a relatively “up-and-comer” in the sport, he gets some compensation from the U.S. Triathlon team. He also expected his chances of making this year’s squad to have “gone either way” before the competition was postponed.
“I was excited but with one more year to train, I’m feeling confident. Since I am so new to this, I was basically learning on the go. So now all I do is focus on the Paralympics.”
While McElvenny missed out on four races this spring, he has also seen his resource for funding his endeavors severely curtailed. Often, McElvenny supplements his training with fees earned from motivational speeches he delivers at athletic events, corporate meetings, college and school assemblies. This spring, he has had more than 15 engagements canceled. Already, there are summer postponements.
“I love speaking to different audiences because it’s less boring. I think I offer a versatile message. One that relates to all audiences. But it’s been a challenge,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, McElvenny is working from home. “I have a lot of down time but it’s nice to be with my family.”
McElvenny met his wife, Rachel, while the two attended the Naval Academy. After living in San Diego during their military careers, the couple moved to Bethel Park. They are rearing three children, Lupe, 13, Elise, 6, and William, 3. Occasionally, McElvenny includes them in training activities, short runs or bike rides to South Park, which is a scant 2.5 miles from the doorstop or visits to the YMCA, which is 10 minutes from home.
Because he is unable to get in a pool, he works with TRX bands to imitate swim positions and to “build up and work” those muscles. “Nobody can do anything swim-wise but you don’t want to loose fitness,” he explained. “The training is pretty intense.”
In addition to strength training and lifting weights, McElvenny puts in a “lot of miles” on the road. He averages approximately 20 hours of week, running upwards of 40 miles and cycling 150 miles. He has made great use of the Montour, Gap and Yough Rails To Trails, South and Mingo parks as well as the backroads of Venetia, Canonsburg and other Washington County destinations. Sometimes, McElvenny rides his bike beyond West Newton to his parents’ house.
“It’s 40 miles exactly,” he said. “There are a lot of great places to train and plenty of hills to attack.”
Because the Paralympic Games do not offer marathon or Ironman competitions, McElvenny is training for the Sprint Triathlon. The event includes 750-meter swimming, 20 kilometer (12.4-mile) cycling and 5K (3.1-mile) running stages.
“Although I would love to do that, they don’t actually have the marathon. I’m more of a triathlete but an Ironman so the sprint is going to be different. You have to go fast the entire time. I’ve gotten good at longer ones, which include running a marathon. Though I’m trained to that level and distance, I’m cool with the sprint. I’ll take anything,” McElvenny added.
After much anguish, McElvenny now views the postponement of the Paralympic Games to Aug. 24-Sept. 5 of next year as an opportunity.
“It was difficult when they canceled because Paralympics was a longtime goal. I would have loved it to be this year but that’s not the case. At first, it was a bad thing but I think it works out for the best. I remain positive. I’m excited that they are still having them.”
Worst case scenario is McElvenny will compete in 2024.
“The best thing about big goals is that you don’t know what obstacles will present themselves.”
When McElvenny competes there are plenty of obstacles. He may have an advantage over swimming competitors that lack arms, but he loses power on the bike because of his artificial leg. He also sacrifices times in the transition zones when he switches and attaches limbs.
McElvenny wears an “every-day walking leg” to play in the park with his kids or walk to the store. He employs a special leg for cycling and a blade for running.
“I don’t dwell on that at all,” he said of any limitations. “When I race in my age group against able-bodied athletes, we all have something to deal with.”
With each race, McElvenny says he learns something, but he knows he has the mental capacity to deal with whatever arises.
“I have what it takes. A lot of it is mental,” he said. “I go so hard it hurts but even at that point I know I have more in me.”
That desire and extra energy have been with him forever. It remains through tough times. It propels him toward his goal of winning at the Paralympics.
“As a kid, when you watched and cheered for the U.S. athletes in the Olympics, you always wondered how cool would that be,” he said.
“When you put on that uniform and are representing the country, you want to win and watch the flag being raised and hear that anthem. Of course, you want to do well. My thought though is if you are going, you might as well go for the gold.”