It has been almost seven years since veteran Stefan LeRoy lost both of his legs.
On June 7, 2012, the then 21-year-old Army Specialist stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan while carrying an injured friend to a chopper. He was partially amputated, above the knee on one leg and below the knee on the other.
A year later, LeRoy hand-cycled the 2013 Boston Marathon that ended in tragedy.
“I thought, when serving overseas and in the United States, that would mean that my family, my friends, people in America, would be a little bit safer. Then coming to Boston and having the Boston bombing occur was kind of one of those punches in the gut,” LeRoy told MassLive.
But the tragedy that day did not stop him: two years later, he hand-cycled the race again in Boston. By 2016, he was ready to put his prosthetic legs to the test for his first half-marathon in Disney World. It was there he first ran with his friend and running guide David Cordani, the chief executive officer and president of insurance company Cigna.
This upcoming Monday, the pair will run their third Boston Marathon together.
“My job, my service wasn’t really over just because I’m injured,” LeRoy recalled thinking after the Boston bombings. “I could continue to serve others by showing them, and inspiring them, and encouraging them.”
LeRoy, who lives in Florida, was connected to Cordani, who lives in Connecticut, through a friend at the Achilles Freedom team, an arm of the Achilles International non-profit that helps athletes with disabilities who have served in the armed forces.
As a CEO and avid runner — with more than 125 marathons and triathlons under his belt — Cordani has worked as a running guide for the last nine years. He has ran with numerous para athletes along the way.
Immediately after finishing the half-marathon in Disney, in January 2016, Cordani remembers LeRoy asking to run the Boston Marathon. The pair went on to run in Boston that spring, and kept the tradition going every year since.
Cordani helps LeRoy stay on track while running, mentally and physically, from monitoring his hydration intake to preventing him from colliding with other runners.
During the 2018 Boston Marathon, the two joined thousands others in the fight against rainy, cold conditions. The 2019 race is shaping up to be another wet one, though with slightly warmer temperatures.
“The weather was abysmal…the cold, the wind and the rain, the physical discomfort. I would say it was extreme for anybody on the course, let alone for our para athletes,” Cordani said. The two finished the grueling 2018 race in 6:23:12.
The guide had a game plan last year: the two would stop at every medical tent along the route to allow LeRoy to briefly sit down, remove his prosthetic legs and dry off. The stops were quick as to not let their body temperatures change.
“The single objective was to avoid hotspots, which could go to blistering, which could go to openings,” Cordani said, noting a problem that particularly impacts para athletes with prosthetic limbs.
He recalled LeRoy joking with the medical tent personnel that he needed to have his socks changed: “they look down, and he had two very pronounced prosthetics,” Cordani said. “It led to a funny vignette, one after the other, every time we went to the medical tent where they thought he was losing his faculties.”
For the army veteran, positivity is essential on race day. He will talk about anything while running, except food. Dreams of post-race cheeseburgers or pizza are off-limits as conversation starters for LeRoy during the marathon. According to Cordani, the 27-year-old veteran’s focus and drive, even in unfavorable conditions, is clear.
“Last year, Stefan just blew me away in terms of, just an iron will to drive through all of that weather,” Cordani said. He described LeRoy as a runner who “enjoys the journey,” and isn’t focused on the finish line or the clock like many others.
LeRoy, in turn, said Cordani is one of very few people he would want on the course with him. In past years, the veteran also had his fiance Katie Smith as a running guide as well.
For those without the support of the Achilles team and a guide like Cordani, the goal of finishing a marathon with prosthetic legs may seem impossible, LeRoy said.
“There are a lot of times someone doesn’t have that support…that’s where that micro-community is so impactful. Because you wouldn’t believe you could do it yourself, but someone tells you this a hundred times, you might figure you actually can do it,” LeRoy said, borrowing the “micro-community” term branded in Cordani’s book, “The Courage to Go Forward.”
For a long time, para athletes have not had the recognition as some other disabled races. In 1975, the Boston Marathon became the first major marathon race to recognize wheelchair divisions.
The Boston Athletic Association recently announced that the marathon will add para divisions with prizes next year for the 2020 race.
LeRoy and Cordani both praise the addition as an important step, but caution against the exclusion of some para athletes who have a less traditional style.
“We have some athletes on the Achilles team who overcome their disability in a way that’s not normal for the majority of people,” LeRoy said, noting a friend who sits backwards in a wheelchair and uses his legs to push. “Still allowing those competitors to complete the marathon should be a goal of the marathon.”
Despite any rain on the horizon, LeRoy and Cordani remain optimistic about the 123rd Boston Marathon. This year, the race falls on April 15, the first time the annual event has coincided with the exact date of the 2013 bombings.
“I think it’s just a pause moment and celebration of humanity,” Cordani said, adding, “It’ll be a pretty powerful day no matter what the weather is.”
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