Wheelchair Racing

Paul Erway

Paul Erway started riding horses at an early age, growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. The vocation that this three-sport high school athlete dreamed of was attending Morrisville (N.Y.) State College to pursue a degree in animal husbandry. During his college days, he was an apprentice at one of the top Reining Stables in the nation under the guidance of Terry Thompson. His vision of the future was to become a trainer for show horses.

The weekend before graduation in 1980 changed that vision. While on a double date, Paul received a severe spinal cord injury as a result of an auto accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The doctor who performed the surgery told Paul that he would use a wheelchair the rest of his life and that he would “need to deal with it.” Thank goodness the rehab doctor came into his room the next day to give Paul the hope that maybe he would have a chance to gain some movement back, but until that day occurred, turn his attention and efforts toward rehab to strengthen his upper body.

After two years, he was stronger but no further movement was gained and the margin remained slim that it would ever happen. Paul realized he was now on a new ride – in a wheelchair that could take him places other than what he initially had in mind. That’s just how powerful this man’s resolve to live is and even though he has no feeling below his chest, the fire to live and to push himself burns brightly in his heart.

He started helping others through a company that adapts vehicles for a person with a disability. Getting back on the road, to go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go was so important for me. This was the beginning when he realized by helping others made his life so rewarding. If it was that important for me to get back on the road, I knew I can show others how easy it can be to get back on the road of life.

He got on the road in 1982 with his first wheelchair race. He moved to Kentucky in 1994 and 12 years later, he was training for a marathon when he suffered his second major accident.

In July 2006, while speeding down a steep hill in Shelbyville during a training run, he encountered a pickup truck on the other side of the road. While trying to move over, he lost control of his wheelchair and slammed into the driver’s door of the truck. He sustained an open fracture of both scapula and collarbone, two broken ribs, a punctured lung, a spinal compression fracture and the avulsion of part of his scalp.

It was 94 degrees that day.

“It’s an accident, so, ‘Don’t touch him, don’t move him,’” medical technicians said.  Typically that is a good idea but unfortunately I was lying on the hot asphalt, and burned 60 percent of my back.

The accident led to one helicopter ride, two hospital stays, three rehab stints, four operations and five months out of work. I was motivated by the need to race, to push myself.

So Paul set out to tackle the world’s premiere wheelchair marathon in Oita, Japan. In 2010 he did just that. Having reached such an incredible goal, he was left wondering where he would find his next motivation.

Then Paul remembered Christopher Reeve and his equestrian accident. He reflected back to all the times he too had come so close to having a similar accident with the uncertainty of riding horses. Paul watched Reeve struggle with what was such a slim chance of gaining movement back to helping increase those odds for others through his foundation. Paul found it rewarding to see the burst of new research with new ideas for therapy – both which changed greatly because of Christopher Reeve. Now what once was a slim margin for so many spinal cord injury victims of getting any movement back has now increased. Now those affected by spinal cord injuries do have a better chance of getting movement back and some full recovery.

Paul’s vision has expanded even more to the future with the questions: “What if there was a lot more money for research and treatment? More people with great minds interested to do even better? The possibility to someday have a 100% cure? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

That is the main reason he races … to “set an example for others” with disabilities— to help them see through the fog of their challenges so they can focus on the clarity of living life to its fullest.

My hope is that people see what we do and realize their disability isn’t the end of their lives. The first thing people have to learn to do is to ‘let it go’, before you could do 10,000 things now you can only do 9,000 things, so don’t dwell on the 1,000 you can’t, you still have too much to do and we hope that our efforts help them do that.”

To reach Paul email at paul@50abilitymarathons.com or call (502) 724-2300.