Ready & Able

Neither Injury Nor Pain Can Slow Down Champion Of Sportfor Handicapped

October 27, 1991|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff writer

Larry Hughes promises pain will not get the best of him.

Sitting in his wheelchair, the product of the permanent disability the Vietnam War gave him 21 years ago, Hughes vows to keep fighting the physical and emotional setbacks that have dogged him for half his life.

He has come a long way. When Hughes first lost the use of his legs, he felt like he would lose the battle.

"I thought about suicideoften at first. Every time I thought I had a handle on it (being disabled), someone else's stares would make me feel that same thought again," Hughes says.

"It's scary when you have to go out and learn things all over and find out where you fit in," he adds. "You've got to be able to adjust. I'm still adjusting."

Hughes has done more than adjust. He has thrived. Hughes, who lives in Columbia, is a champion wheelchair road racer and a tireless promoter of wheelchairsports.He has helped to invent and market a training machine for disabled athletes. He helps handicapped people cope with their limitations, andteaches the able-bodied to understand the needs and capabilities of the disabled.


Of all the ways, Hughes, 43, has defied the limits imposed by his paraplegia, none captures his spirit like an event in 1984, when he realized a dream as a wheelchair road racer.

Still new to a sport that was in its early stages, Hughes decided to enter a grueling, eight-day, 367-mile wheelchair marathon from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska. Thirty-one miles into the marathon -- which would take him up steep mountainsides, into wind, heavy rain, snow and temperatures fluctuating between 25 and 90 degrees -- Hughes headed down a hill at nearly 50 miles per hour.

Suddenly, he lost control of his chair. The chair began flipping. He instinctively threw out his arms to protect his head. His head was spared from injury, but the wreck left him with two broken wrists.

"There were many reasons to quit, few reasons to go on," Hughes recalls. "The pain was excruciating, shocking. You ever had a toothache or an exposed nerve in your mouth? There's your pain. From my shoulders all the way down my arms."

The pain, however, did not drive Hughes out of the marathon. After doctors placed his hands in casts, Hughes found the molds prevented him from maintaining a proper grip on the wheels. So he disobeyed doctors' orders, cut off the casts and pressed on.

Seven days and 336 miles later, Hughes and seven other of the original 15 competitors completed the course.

"The pain went all over mybody. It became a companion of mine. You could have touched my ear and brought on pain everywhere. The skin on my hands and fingers was so beat up that it was literally torn," he says.

"I passed out after the race," says Hughes, who returned a year later with healed wrists to complete the Alaska marathon again. "It took more strength than I've ever had. But I had to do it. I had to take on this challenge tofind out who I was. I found out I really like me."


While growing up in Baltimore, Hughes was a popular studentwho had enough athletic ability to dream of a future as a professional football player. He played football at City College, then one of the state's perennial powerhouses. As a senior halfback and a linebacker, Hughes played in City's annual Thanksgiving game against Poly at Memorial Stadium.

He graduated in 1967, hoping to play football atthe Air Force Academy.

The Marines had other ideas. They drafted Hughes shortly before his 20th birthday, and in 1969 sent him to Vietnam. Three months into his tour, shrapnel tore into Hughes' chest, back and arms.

Before long, it was apparent his wounds were not healing properly. Doctors diagnosed him with systemic lupus -- a mysterious, unpredictable circulatory disorder that affects the central nervous system. When Hughes was discharged in 1969, he had begun to lose the use of his legs.

Over the next 18 months, while he got around with the aid of crutches and leg braces, the nerves in his legs deteriorated. The realization of his impending, permanent disability settled in slowly, torturously. By 1970, Hughes was in a wheelchair.

"Sometimes it was too damn much to take. How do you prepare for something like that?" Hughes says. "My popularity went right down the toilet.In the end, I could count two real friends, plus my family. Disability brings on a lot of change, and change is difficult for a lot of people. You can lose out to change.

"That blanket of sorrow and pityis tough to get out from under sometimes," he adds. "Everyone with adisability copes with it."

In the late 1970s, Hughes began to take control of his life again. He married, fathered two daughters and returned to school. At the University of Baltimore, he joined the computer team, which finished third in a national problem-solving contest.

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