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LINCOLN â€” Whether itâ€™s a half or the full boat, a triathlon is a true test of oneâ€™s mental and physical endurance, combining long-distance swimming, bicycling and running into a single event.
There will more than 1,300 amateur and professional athletes from 40 states and 20 countries at todayâ€™s fourth annual Amica Ironman 70.3 triathlon â€” a 1.2-mile swim at Lincoln Woods, a 56-mile bike through the Blackstone Valley region and a 13.1-mile run that finishes at the R.I. State House. Among those participants is Hector Picard.
For Picard, it will be his 39 triathlon since 2009. While that in itself is an impressive feat, thereâ€™s another thing that makes the 43-year-old Florida nativeâ€™s appearance in the Providence event so remarkable.
Heâ€™s a double-arm amputee.
Defying the odds since a tragic near-death accident two decades ago forced doctors to do the inevitable by amputating his arms, Picard will be at the eventâ€™s starting point at Lincoln Woods ready to take on another challenge. Heâ€™s not just there to finish either. Heâ€™s done that plenty of times in the last two-plus years.
Picard is aiming to once again be competitive among his peers despite his obvious disadvantage.
â€śMy goal is to be the best that I can be,â€ť said Picard, who is residing with his wife and her former in-laws at their house in Lincoln before the big event. â€śNobody should take me lightly. I want to beat them.â€ť
Why the triathlon? What was the reason that Picard decided to focus his attention on competing in the ultimate endurance race despite never participating in any of the three sports involved?
On his way to Boston Thursday morning for some sightseeing, Picard explained that itâ€™s all about living. Itâ€™s all about not giving up when life has not followed the usual route, whatever that may be.
His primary motivational factor to get from Point A to Point B is to prove that no matter what, nothing is impossible.
â€śFrom the beginning, people have always been supportive. They call me an inspiration,â€ť he said. â€śThat makes me feel good. That gives me motivation.â€ť
It was on March 31, 1992, at age 24, that Picard saw his life altered. While working for a power company in Hollywood, Fla., as an electrician on a substation transformer, a two-story structure that supplies power to an entire neighborhood, Picard was electrocuted. It initially happened to his right arm with the bolt so powerful through the right side of his body that it blew out the top of his right foot. While falling the two stories, he grabbed the transformer with his left arm and again was zapped by a strong bolt of electricity.
â€śI was hit by a double jolt of 13,000 bolts and fell about 15-20 feet,â€ť he said. â€śIt burned over 40 percent of my body with second and third degree burns.â€ť
Picard mind was blanked from the mishap, receiving his information from observers at the sight. He laid in a coma at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. During that time, doctors were forced to amputate his arms after thermo burn had destroyed all the tissue inside. The right arm was cut at the shoulder while the left arm was cut just before the elbow.
Picard came out of his coma not realizing what the doctors had to do to save his life.
â€śI woke up and I couldnâ€™t talk, couldnâ€™t move. I was in a lot of pain because of the burns,â€ť he said. â€śI looked down and saw that both my arms were missing. My wife told me they had to do it or I wouldnâ€™t have lived.â€ť
Picard initially went through the â€śWhy-me attitude,â€ť but all he had to do was look at his young daughter at the time and knew he could not feel sorry for himself and had to keep on living, despite the challenging situation that he now had to face.
â€śI had a one-year-old daughter at the time,â€ť he said. â€śI had to live to take care of my daughter, to be a father, to be a husband.â€ť
The first sport that Picard took part in after his accident was basketball where he created a device made from a bucket and shaped like a ring that attaches to a sports prosthesis.
â€śI could actually shoot better than most of my team,â€ť he said.
Picard also coached his daughter in Little League softball and actually pitched and was able to conduct batting practice with a number of other contraptions that he invented. He would pitch an average of 350 balls a night.
In late 2008, Picard had to deal with a divorce from his first wife after 20 years of marriage and two children. He used the gym as a way to cope with the depression. He is now happily married again to Providence native Wendy Marquard, but during his first divorce working out provided some mental relief.
While at the gym a couple he befriended during a spinning class suggested he try a triathlon. The rest is history.
How can a man without arms compete in a triathlon? Picard found the answers.
Never backing down from adversity, he bought a $100 Huffy bike at Toys R Us, went to Lowes and purchased sprinkler parts, bolts and some plumbing parts. He rerouted the brakes to the frame so that he could use his legs to brake. He placed the plumbing devices on the handlebars to enable him to steer. Originally, he had to keep his bike in one gear. But his bike was soon altered again, thanks to the I Will Foundation â€“ a non-profit organization that assists people whose lives have been affected by life-changing illness or traumatic injury. The I Will Foundation installed an electronic shifter that does not require the use of hands.
â€śI didnâ€™t use gears at all the first few races,â€ť he said. â€śI was going up hills at the highest gear possible.â€ť
As for swimming, Picard does that on his back, using a reversed breaststroke.
â€śI just propel myself with my legs,â€ť he said.
The determined athlete considers bicycling his strongest event and running his weakest.
â€śI am usually in the top 40 percent after biking and the last 20 percent after running. My right foot was damaged from the electricity. Itâ€™s not so much painful but the movement is not the same. But I donâ€™t like to use that as an excuse. I think I can definitely improve on my running if I train a little harder.â€ť
Picardâ€™s first triathlon was the Ameriprise Financial Independence Day Sprint Triathlon in Coconut Creek, Fla. on July 4, 2009. He placed 344th out of 375 finishers. After the Amica event, he plans to compete in the Nautica NYC Triathlon/Paratri National Championships in New York on Aug. 7. He also has the World Triathlon Championships in Las Vegas on Sept. 11 circled on his calendar. In that race, he was one of four physically-challenged athletes selected to compete.
In 2012, Picard is hoping to compete in a full triathlon â€” a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile marathon. Heâ€™s looking to finish todayâ€™s triathlon in a personal-best clocking.
â€śMy best time is 6:45. My goal is 6:30 in this one,â€ť he said. â€śI just want to give it my best.â€ť
In addition to being a realtor, Picard is also a motivational speaker, telling his story and inspiring people nationwide. His website, no surprise, is www.dontstopliving.org...The Amica Ironman 70.3 officially begins at 6 a.m. with the first swim wave at Lincoln Woods. The winner is expected to arrive at the State House at around 9:40 a.m. The age of the competitors, which includes 100 athletes from Rhode Island, ranges from 18 to 74-years-old. The prize purse for the professional athletes is $15,000.