Dennis Gordon: Triple Amputee Isn’t Spinning His Wheels
October 2007 Issue
Dennis Gordon just wants to be an ordinary guy. But nothing about this 57-year-old triple amputee and multi-sport, competitive athlete is ordinary.
After a landmine explosion resulted in the loss of his left leg above the knee, right leg below the knee, and left arm below the elbow in December of 1968 while he served in Vietnam, Gordon decided to take life one step at a time.
"There's a logical progression for anyone in life," Gordon says. "I set many small goals. First start walking, then walk well, go to college, get a job, have a wife and family. I wanted to mainstream into society and be thought of as anybody else-just another person, not an amputee."
Active in high school track and football, Gordon remained athletic after his limb loss and has since discovered a few new sports. From the time he began rehabilitation in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to his introduction to disabled sports 21 years later, Gordon strove to achieve "normalcy." He has far surpassed that goal by excelling in adaptive sports programs. "The VA had a great rehab program," he says. "I had always been active growing up, so it was important for me to continue to be active as I got older, despite my amputations."
|Rick "Worm" Charbonneau with the Denver Newspaper Agency poses with Dennis Gordon and his wife Kate at the 2007 Ride the Rockies cycling event.
Gordon was introduced to Three Trackers, a Cleveland, Ohio, based, nonprofit organization that began as an adaptive snow skiing program for the disabled. "I went to a clinic and met the instructors," Gordon says. "It was one big party atmosphere-a real social event." Soon after, his wife Kate became president of the organization, and Gordon learned to ski, competing in ski races with Three Trackers and volunteering for more than 13 years.
"Learning to ski was great," he says. "It was a challenge to ski with able-bodied skiers, and I enjoyed being in control." Skiing provided Gordon and his family-his wife, two sons, and daughter-with an exciting activity that they could all enjoy together. The family spent numerous vacations in Colorado skiing together and, after retiring from 26 years as an accountant in 2001, Gordon decided to move to Longmont, Colorado, from Cleveland, Ohio. In Colorado Gordon discovered sled hockey.
"Within the first year of living in Colorado, I called the director of Colorado Sled Hockey and simply showed up at practice one day. I bought some used equipment and started practicing with the Avalanche Sled Hockey Team," he says. Though players are strapped into a metal-framed sled with hockey-skate blades attached underneath, rather than upright on skates, sled hockey is just as aggressive as traditional hockey, complete with high-speed slap shots on goal and brutal checking. "I was hooked immediately! It was wonderful, wonderful," Gordon says. "This was very different from other sports I'd participated in."
Gordon values the camaraderie between the players and the excellent coaching. "You do everything for the team rather than yourself," he explains. "You've really got to stay focused [and] get your head in the game."
Gordon plans to travel to three cities this winter: Sacramento, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Salt Lake City, Utah, with the Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey Team, a member of the United States Sled Hockey Association (USSHA). "Things have improved for persons with disabilities over the years," he says. "Organizations such as CAF [Challenged Athletes Foundation, San Diego, California] make it much easier for people to participate in adaptive sports."
CAF provides funding for equipment, training, and travel expenses to disabled athletes through grants. The organization provided Gordon with his first hockey sled and will help offset his travel expenses.
Because the Avalanche Sled Hockey Team attracts some of the best players in the nation, the competition is intense and the athletes are top-notch. "I learn a lot from these guys who've played nationally. Some of them are pro athletes who've competed in the Paralympics," he says with excitement in his voice. "I'm planning on going to the national tryouts to learn from them and get a taste of big-time hockey."
In addition to skiing and playing sled hockey, Gordon is heavily involved in hand cycling. He co-developed a website ( www.handbikeamerica.com ) with Army veteran Mark Drake. Their serendipitous meeting while biking along the St. Vrain River in Longmont, Colorado, led to a collaborative effort to develop enhanced hand-cycle components, educate others, and promote the sport. As the effects of post-polio syndrome (PPS) gradually weakened his leg muscles, Drake had resigned himself to the idea that he would have to give up the cycling hobby he loved until he met Gordon. Now both enjoy competing together in hand-cycling races across the state. Drake, a former bicycle shop owner, used his mechanical knowledge to develop a front-disc brake system, increasing safety.
"My friend has been amazing," says Gordon. "He goes to clinics, and while there, he sees if anybody needs anything for their bikes. He provides components at his cost just to improve and help other people's cycling experience."
Gordon tested his friend's improved brake discs on the grueling 2007 Denver Post Ride the Rockies cycling event. Each June, Gordon and his wife celebrate their anniversary by completing the 400-mile tour together. "We meet at pit stops," says Gordon. "Our son Sam does the race with us too. But he gets up long before we do, and by the time we get to the rest stop, he's already made up our beds for us and is fast asleep."
Though it's hard for many to comprehend the appeal of waking up at 4:30 a.m. to ride up hills and over mountain passes, only to collapse on a gym floor at the end of the day, Gordon (and approximately 2,000 other riders) fondly anticipates the event each year. Gordon rides his Freedom Ryder Superbike, Brike International, Ltd., Tualatin, Oregon, an average of six miles per hour, beginning at 6 a.m. and finishing around 8 p.m. "It's a grueling ride; there's no doubt about it," he says, laughing. "When it's over, you feel tired more than anything else, but you also feel like you've really done something great. Giving up air conditioning, private bathrooms, and comfort for a week makes you really appreciate the luxuries in life."
The ride through the Rocky Mountains takes cyclists on a different route each year, covering approximately 60 miles of paved mountain roads each day of the six- or seven-day event.
What motivates cyclists like Gordon to take on this challenge?
For Gordon, it's without question the breathtaking views and spectacular mountain scenery.
"The climbs are painful, but the vistas and the scenery make it all worth it," Gordon explains. "I like it because you can really enjoy Colorado on a bike. In a car it all just whizzes by. But on a bike, you can really appreciate the beauty of the mountains."
Gordon realized early that making the most of his life after losing three limbs was going to take dedication, focus, and hard work. "You really can't feel sorry for yourself," he says. "Nobody cares about your life the way you do, so you're going to have to just do it-just live your life! Once you get that into your head you'll be fine."
Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and can be reached at email@example.com