As a joke, they decided to call their team “Three Legs Are Better Than One.” This past weekend the Texas amputee athletes proved their motto true in a grueling triathlon course in San Diego.
Roy Martin of Dallas lost his right foot in an industrial accident. Fort Worth's Jennifer Teague Clark lost her left leg to a benign tumor. And Caitlin Conner of Chappell Hill lost her lower left leg, less than three years ago, in a motorcycle crash with a distracted driver. They met at Baker Prosthetics, the Fort Worth company that makes their new legs.
And they decided, together, to put their hardware, and heart, to a test.
Their choice was a team triathlon, sponsored annually by the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego. And there, on the shores of La Jolla Cove, they found hundreds of people just like them taking one very big next step.
"We're in our own element where everybody's like us and body parts are lying everywhere and it's OK,” Jennifer Teague Clark said with a laugh.
Jennifer would be first, competing in a one-mile swim. Roy would be next, wearing his running blade on his right leg for a 10-mile run. And then Caitlin, an admitted novice on a bicycle, would try 44 grueling miles up and down the hills of La Jolla and northern San Diego County.
But, before the race, she admitted that her longest training ride to date was only three miles.
"I never thought about it because I was not an athlete before this at all. You're talking about ‘band girl’ over here,” she laughed.
But why after so much trauma and so much pain would they sign up for so much more?
"Just to know I can do something that people think that I couldn't, you know?,” said Martin before his race.
“Once I pass that finish line I can look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I did this,’” said Conner. "I went the full distance and I didn't do it for anybody but to prove to myself that I could do it. I will learn how much heart I have. I've already got enough heart to get here. So I know I have enough heart to get through that line."
"I'd highly recommend it,” said Teague Clark, the only member of the trio who had competed in the CAF Triathlon before. “It's the most powerful weekend. Life-changing."
But even if the race wasn't life changing, another part of the weekend definitely was. They met dozens of children at a CAF running clinic. Athletic trainers and prosthetic specialists conducted clinics to help children and adults learn to walk and run better on their new limbs. It was difficult to tell who was more inspiring to whom: the adults showing the children that a mobile future was possible, or the children running on artificial legs and feet at amazing speed, that nothing will hold them back.
“And then watching these kids this weekend, man it really just touches my heart,” said Martin. “What I get from them is enjoy life."
Learning that a leg or an arm doesn't define you, that heart is all that matters, that life is not a race. A life where technology and toughness make a bright future possible. A future worth chasing with everything you have and everything you don't.
"It's not even just seeing people who have gone through what I've gone through. It's seeing kids. These little kids running around and just having a blast doing things no one would imagine them doing. It's amazing,” said Conner.
So Jennifer completed her one-mile ocean swim. Roy pounded out those 10 miles. And Caitlin spent about five hours on her bike. Each of them crossed their own finish line, not out to prove anything to anyone, other than just themselves.
"No walking, man. No walking at all. God honest truth. I feel every last bit of it,” Martin said shortly after crossing the finish line at La Jolla Cove on Sunday morning. “You got to get up and move on. Got to.”
“You got to move forward, man. You can't just sit there and let life hold you down and choke you."
And as Caitlin crossed her finish line, she was in tears. Not from the pain but from realizing she'd passed her own difficult test.
"I faced my fear, fear of falling. I fell and I got back up. Fell twice and got back up each time. Faced my fear of being on a bike in traffic, cars zooming by, we almost got hit by a bus.”
"Faced it. I overcame."
And that's what three Texas triathletes, and hundreds of others from across the country, found in San Diego: more proof that they can overcome. That no matter how many feet you might have, your horizon is waiting for you to take the next step.