A Disabled Champ Faces a Nationwide Challenge : Athletics: David Cornelsen of Huntington Beach, once a top bicyclist and avid hiker but now an accident victim, aims to cycle across the United States in less than 35 days--using only his arms.
Before an automobile accident left him crippled three years ago, David Cornelsen of Huntington Beach was a champion bicyclist and avid hiker.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Cornelsen can no longer hike. But he can cycle. On June 3 in upstate New York, he used an arm-powered, three-wheel bike to set a national record for handicapped competitors in a time-trial race.
What made Cornelsen’s feat all the more noteworthy is that among a field of 82 cyclists, he was the only handicapped contestant in the 24-hour competition--yet finished 47th.
In August, Cornelsen, 38, hopes to shatter another record: Bicycling across the United States in less than 35 days, again using only his arms.
“I like competition, but I also just like getting out there in nature,” Cornelsen said.
Three summers ago, Cornelsen was lying on a gurney in a hospital recovery room, immobilized after an automobile accident in Mexicali, Mexico. A sociology lecturer at USC then, Cornelsen and friends were heading down to the Mexican resort of San Felipe for some weekend boating when the accident happened. His two friends seated in front were unhurt, but Cornelsen, seated in the rear, fractured his spine.
A tall, muscular man, Cornelsen spent the next four months staring face down on a gurney--a far cry from before his injury, when he had run in the Los Angeles Marathon and raced as a member of the U.S. Cycling Federation.
“I thought I would be weaving baskets and living at my parents’ for the rest of my life,” Cornelsen said.
His parents, Rufus and Frances Cornelsen of suburban Philadelphia, were equally glum after being notified of the tragedy while vacationing in Europe.
“I was told that he was a paraplegic, and there was no projection about the future,” his father recalled. “It was very, very grim.”
Cornelsen kept himself busy, though, finishing a dissertation for his doctorate in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He had earlier obtained a master’s degree from Yale University, where he was captain of the bicycling team.
Cornelsen said he focused all of his energy on completing his academic work. “That is what helped keep me sane, I think, to channel my energy into writing,” he said.
At the Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, where he underwent therapy, Cornelsen was finally able to ease from the gurney into a wheelchair. He was weak from inactivity, and his legs had atrophied and had to be propped up on wheelchair extensions, he recalled.
Slowly, Cornelsen began regaining feeling in his buttocks and thighs and immersed himself in building his upper body strength. He competed in wheelchair races with other disabled athletes.
“At first I started racing to stay in shape,” Cornelsen said. “But when I realized how fun it was and how many serious wheelchair athletes were out there, I really got into it. I developed an obsession to compete.”
Cornelsen could have moved back home under the care of his parents, but he chose to remain in Southern California, where he and a friend bought a home in Huntington Beach and Cornelsen took a job as program manager for the disabled at Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach.
All the while, he said, he practiced racing wheelchairs. He went through three racing wheelchairs before discovering an even grander athletic opportunity: racing with an arm-powered bicycle.
The bikes--with pedals at chest level instead of at the feet--were introduced just a few years ago and are available only on special order. Cornelsen said he first heard of the bike when he met John Marino, president of the ultra-marathon American Cycling Assn., at a racing event in Irvine.
Marino said he told Cornelsen that Bob Wieland--a double amputee from Arcadia who drew national attention for crossing the United States on his arms--had set a transcontinental record in 1989 with an arm-powered bike. His record: 35 days and 5 minutes.
“I asked Dave, ‘Do you think you could beat it?’ and he said, ‘Yep, I think I can,’ ” Marino said.
Cornelsen accepted the challenge like a man possessed.
“For me, going across country in a race is the ultimate challenge, not only physically but mentally,” Cornelsen said.
He found an arm-powered bike and began practice, pedaling an average of 80 miles a day throughout Huntington Beach and on the Santa Ana River Bicycle Trail. His goal: not only to beat Wieland’s record, but to shatter it.
Cornelsen figures that he can make it from Costa Mesa to New York--the same 2,910-mile route that Wieland took--in 21 days. The record for a full-powered bicyclist is eight days.
Cornelsen quit his job in December at the Long Beach hospital so he could train full time. He lined up corporate sponsors to defray the estimated $25,000 cost of the trip, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 26. The American Paralysis Assn. is also collecting pledges.
And he began entering biking events.
On the weekend of June 2, Cornelsen competed in the 1990 Bud Light Challenge, a 24-hour race on a 31.7-mile loop around the town of Edinburgh, N.Y. In that time, Cornelsen covered 236.9 miles, breaking the national record for paraplegic cyclists of 178 miles.
One of the pitfalls of an arm-powered bike is that the front wheel can start wobbling out of control if it hits a bump. Cornelsen had barely entered the New York race when he began a steep descent of one hill and spotted bumps all over the road.
“I thought my race would be over in the first mile,” Cornelsen said, adding that he managed to maneuver around the bumps.
Arm-powered bikes are also difficult to steer, turning left or right only after the rider leans the body one way or the other.
While practicing recently in front of his Huntington Beach home, for example, Cornelsen--wearing his fluorescent-green racing suit, goggles and helmet--needed both sides of the street to make a U-turn.
The brakes can also go out, as they did for Cornelsen once when he was descending a steep grade. He finally used his gloved hands to stop the front wheel.
Still, Cornelsen said he has escaped injury in the two spills he has taken while riding.
“The only bone I’ve ever broken was my back,” he said with a grin.
Looking ahead to his August journey, however, Cornelsen envisions all kinds of potential dangers. Traversing the Mojave Desert, with its blistering temperatures, will be the first hazard.
“I’m going to be going as much as I can at night to avoid the heat of the day,” Cornelsen said as he sat in his garage opening a box of plastic water bottles for the trip.
And the sheer exertion of pedaling his bike eight to 10 hours every day will leave him so exhausted that he is arranging to have a masseuse and doctor along.
“The worst day, I think, will be going through Missouri, because it’s right through the Ozarks and there’s a lot of short, steep hills,” Cornelsen said.
Assuming that he makes it--and Cornelsen expresses no doubt about that--the next big challenge is in 1992, when he said he is scheduled to be on the U.S. kayaking team during the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Kayaking is another of the athletic passions he has taken up since being paralyzed.
Cornelsen said he is not trying to send out a message to other disabled athletes. He said his message is aimed primarily at the able-bodied.
“The message I’m trying to give out,” he said, “is that we want to be taken seriously as athletes.”