Gerard Ah-Fook, 40, was serving four years in the U.S. Navy when an off-duty water skiing session went terribly wrong. His friends accidentally backed into him with the boat, crushing his legs. The Navy contacted his parents, telling them that death was imminent so they needed to see their son while they still had a chance.
Gerard lived, but he lost one leg and most of the use in his other leg. For this highly physical, fitness-loving solider, realizing he’d have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life was overwhelmingly depressing. “The hardest part of my recovery was coping with what I thought at the time was a loss of my identity,” Gerard said.
It wasn’t until he returned home to Hawaii and began swimming in the ocean that he realized his identity had nothing to do with the wheelchair. He was still Gerard. And, he could still do physically fit activities. He would swim for hours in the ocean. He said it was his way to cope. “I was free as anyone else in the ocean,” he said. “I was able to be physical once again, and lose myself in a movement that had nothing to do with my wheelchair.”
One time, Gerard swam until after dusk. When he crawled out of the ocean, he found policemen standing by his wheelchair. They thought it belonged to someone who had committed suicide. They were surprised to see Gerard. “The two officers were silent with a note pad and pen, staring at me and not moving,” Gerard said. “I still enjoy the look on their faces to this day.”
Gerard attempted handcycling, too, as another avenue to be free of the chair and physically active. Eventually, he moved to Tucson, Arizona and has been helping other vets through cycling for about five years. This year, he got hooked up with the Tucson-based non-profit Velo\Vets, which also helps disabled veterans through cycling. “Cycling brings me the same freedoms swimming does,” he said. “I am just as free as anyone else to enjoy riding whenever, wherever, and with whomever.”
“With whomever” often includes his wife and their three young boys, other vets through organizations like Velo\Vets, or his racing team, Paralyzed Veterans Racing (PVR). “Cycling has allowed me the privilege of doing great events across the country and international racing events around the world,” he said. “More important, it has brought me within friendship level of other veterans who inspire me and teach me much about racing and life.”
Ups and Downs
This has been a year of ups and downs for Gerard. He competed in 13 races and took 1st in nine of them. Because of his involvement with Velo\Vets, he raced in the RAGBRAI 2017, which is a ride across the state of Iowa (more than 400 miles). But, this past summer, his beloved “Frankencycle,” a bike he cobbled together himself worth about $16,000, was stolen. Gerard said it felt like a kick in the gut.
A GoFundMe fund-raiser was set up and word spread quickly thanks to Giuliana Donnelly, the founder of Velo\Vets. The donations poured in and Gerard was able to get another handcycle.
Nothing has stopped Gerard. He is still going full speed ahead. Not only does he compete in multiple handcycling events across the globe, but he has also done triathlons, including an IronMan triathlon.
Physical fitness is vital for his well-being. “Fitness is the glue that holds me together,” he said. “It makes me a better person because of the mental strength required to always push and to persevere despite being set back, broken, or hindered in some way.”
Don’t get him wrong. It’s not always easy. “My injury is a great struggle,” he said, “[but it makes] my family and myself stronger because of it.”
By LaRue Gillespie