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July 20, 2017

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Swim, cycle, push, inspire

Paraplegic athlete guts out triathlon finish in Henderson amid punishing conditions, looks to public speaking

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Tiffany Brown

Oscar “Oz” Sanchez sits on the dock at Hemmenway Harbor on Sunday after swimming 1.2 miles in the first leg of the Silverman Triathlon in and around Henderson. Sanchez, a former football player, mountain biker and Reconnaissance Marine, was injured in a motorcycle accident and paralyzed from the thighs down. He was gold medalist in the hand cycle trial in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

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They call him Oz because of his name — Oscar Sanchez. But it could almost be because of the traits and resources he has acquired along life’s yellow brick road.

Courage? Check.

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  • Oscar "Oz" Sanchez talks about competing in Beijing.

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  • Sanchez on his ability to cope.

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  • Sanchez talks about his first three thoughts after his accident.

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  • Sanchez talks about how the Marines saves his life.

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Heart? Check.

Brains? Uh, better hold off on that one.

Sanchez, the gold medalist in the hand cycle trial at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, picked the wrong day to swim, cycle and run 70-plus miles for the first time. That would have been Sunday, at the Silverman Triathlon in and around Henderson.

“It was horrible,” the former Marine said.

He wasn’t speaking so much of the idea of running a half-triathlon, which is frightening enough, but of the conditions. They were ideal on Friday. They were ideal on Saturday. But on Sunday, just before the race started, Mother Nature tossed the gluttons for punishment — er, triathletes — a wicked curveball that would have made Sandy Koufax blush.

Sanchez didn’t wear a wet suit for the 1.2-mile swim. It’s almost impossible to get out of one of those when you are paralyzed from the thighs down. For Sanchez, it was a wardrobe malfunction. He said the early-morning rain felt like icy daggers shooting down his spine.

Between the wind and the rain, Lake Mead looked like the English Channel during the Normandy Invasion.

“They were having to send safety people to rescue the safety people,” Sanchez said.

Before the cycling segment, Sanchez had to go to the restroom. The line was longer than at a Bon Jovi concert. If you took away the wind and the fact that his gear was soaked and that the sun stayed out for only about five minutes, the 56-mile bike ride wasn’t that bad.

“The wind was by far the biggest factor as far as breaking bodies down. No matter what direction you were going, it was a headwind,” Sanchez said.

Then came the half-marathon. Paraplegic athletes don’t run the 13.1-mile distance. They push it — while strapped to a racing wheelchair. Unless the countryside resembles a bobsled course and your arms are made of carbon fiber, pushing 13.1 miles is a lot more difficult than running 13.1 miles. The countryside around here looks more like an uphill bobsled course.

Because Sanchez is a neophyte to racing in a wheelchair, he had mechanical difficulties. After the treacherous swim and fighting those headwinds, he had a horrible thought — that he might not make it to the finish.

But Oz Sanchez finished. Oz Sanchez always finishes. Some way, somehow, calling on some inner strength that is foreign to the great majority of us, he managed to make it to the end.

• • •

Oz Sanchez says he dearly loves his parents. But his father was an alcoholic and his mother was abusive and, like a lot of kids in that situation who grow up in inner-city neighborhoods, he experimented with drugs and ran with gangs. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush that both provided.

But it wasn’t enough. So he turned to sports, such as football. He was a small defensive end who earned the nickname “Rainbow” because his helmet was all different colors, from knocking the paint off the other guys’ with his. But even football wasn’t enough. After practice or games, he’d go out drinking with his buddies. Then when he’d get home, he’d ride his mountain bike until the wee hours of the morning or it was time to go to class.

Sanchez wasn’t much of a student, which meant he was going to have to find another outlet besides football to release his pent-up frustration. His brother had joined the Army and became a Green Beret; Oz would join the Marines and became a Reconnaissance Marine.

Recon Marines are like GI Joe with the kung-fu grip. They have scars and thick beards and can lie in a swamp for hours with a bayonet between their teeth, if they have to. Sanchez said when it came to an adrenaline rush, becoming a Special Ops Marine was even better than hitting an opposing ballcarrier with his helmet.

“The Marine Corps saved my life in more ways than one,” he said. “The Marines brought out the many strengths I had in me and flushed out the many weaknesses.”

• • •

In 2003, Sanchez was about to switch branches of military service and become a Navy SEAL when he awoke in a ditch. He was speeding near Morley Field in San Diego, where he lives, when a motorist made an illegal turn in front of him. He crashed his motorcycle and flipped over an embankment and into a ditch that was mostly dirt and sod, Sanchez said. “Except there were four or five rocks ...”

His back was broken, just above the waist.

Sanchez recalls his initial thoughts upon regaining consciousness with crystal clarity.

“Get the gum out of my mouth, how’s the bike, and my girlfriend is really going to be (upset),” he said. “Then I said ‘damn it,’ although those weren’t my exact words. We knew there were paralysis issues right off the bat.”

It was a scary scenario, even for a former Marine who had endured a tough childhood.

“Because of my upbringing in life and that I fell into the Marine Corps — and was very comfortable in the Marine Corps — almost instantaneous from the moment of the accident it was, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ” Sanchez said. “I cannot recall — well, maybe once — thinking ‘why me?’ and then I stopped myself. With me, it was never a self-pity deal.”

But he did suffer depression, which led to a drinking problem, which cost him his marriage. He was cooped up for 18 months before doctors cleared him to start working out again.

He said he had always been a “man’s man,” as he put it, using his physicality to build self-esteem he never felt growing up.

“To have a chance at success, I was going to have to use my brain now,” Sanchez said. “It was a daunting experience.”

• • •

In 2006, Sanchez graduated from San Diego State with a degree in business administration. One day, he hopes to get a master’s. He wants to become a public speaker and raise awareness about disabled athletes and their accomplishments.

He is featured in “American Paraplegic,” a soon-to-be-released documentary about Challenge Alaska, a grueling 267-mile race from Fairbanks to Anchorage contested by disabled athletes through the rugged mountain terrain and frozen tundra of the Last Frontier.

He hopes the film, directed by Steven G. Barber and narrated by Dan Aykroyd, will enable him to reach a new audience. That’s why the gold medalist participates in events such as the Silverman and works with programs such as Operation Rebound and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“I’m not racing for me,” Sanchez said. “I’m racing for a bigger group.”

Maybe, as the song says, Oz didn’t give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.

He just thinks it would be nice if the rest of us noticed.

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