Over the last 17 years, Geoff Hopkins of Springfield has competed in 15 marathons. He is currently training for his first triathlon and hopes someday to compete in the Ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii. But, what makes these impressive accomplishments and goals more remarkable is that Hopkins has been a paraplegic since 1988.
“I always say, life is like a carousel, you can jump on board and have fun, or you can sit by and watch it go around and feel sorry for yourself,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins was a healthy, energetic 22-year-old, just out of the U.S. Army, when he lost control of the motorcycle he was driving and hit a guardrail in Huntington, W.Va. During the crash, Hopkins sustained a spinal cord injury that left him unable to walk.
After four weeks in the hospital, Hopkins was moved to McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va. for rehabilitation. He was released from rehabilitation on Dec. 23 and by Jan. 17, 1989, he was starting college at Marshall University in West Virginia.
“I just breezed through. I just had a lot to,” Hopkins said.
Soon after starting college, Hopkins began pushing his every-day wheelchair around Marshall’s track for exercise. Not long after, he heard about wheelchair racing, looked into it, and in July 1989 he went to the National Veterans Wheelchair games in Long Beach, Calif. Hopkins said it was here that he realized the breadth of wheelchair sports.
“There were people in wheelchairs who were swimming, bowling and playing tennis,” said Hopkins. “I participated in a couple of events and then in September I got my first racing chair. My mom bought it for me.”
From that point on, Hopkins’ love of wheelchair racing accelerated, and he competed in 10K and 5K events as well as the New York City, Marine Corps, Baltimore, Boston and several other marathons.
“[My family] thinks I’m crazy. My wife thinks I’m crazy. I’m just always finding something, there’s always a race,” said Hopkins. “It’s goals for me, I just love to compete, it’s something down the road that I’m training for, it’s just part of who I am.”
Hopkins has recently added a new type of racing to his repertoire: hand cycling.
He explained that hand cycling is similar to bicycling because the hand cycle has gears and using a push rim racing wheelchair is closer to running because there are no gears. Hopkins explained that in a triathlon for wheelchair athletes, the hand cycle is used for the biking part of the competition while the push rim is used for the running portion.
ON AUG. 13, Hopkins will participate in his first triathlon, the Sylvania Triathlon in Sylvania, Ohio. He will be participating in the sprint competition that consists of a 0.25-mile swim, a 14-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.
“It’s a new endeavor, I needed something new, and so I thought I’d add a third aspect and do a triathlon,” said Hopkins.
Aiding Hopkins will be a new set of wheels for his push rim-racing wheelchair – a purchase made possible by a $2,000 grant he received from Balance Bar.
According to Jennifer Moore, a representative from Hunter Public Relations, a New York City based public relations firm that has Balance Bar as a client, over $450,000 has been given in grants from Balance Bar over the past four years to help amateur athletes achieve their goals.
Hopkins said he was one of 12 people to receive a grant out of 1,200 applicants.
“It was shocking when I got the call saying I won, I was just flipping out of my wheelchair I was so happy,” said Hopkins. “It’s just an awesome opportunity to be sponsored by Balance Bar and to upgrade my equipment to the status of an elite athlete.”
Hopkins’ new wheels are lighter weight than what he previously used and more aerodynamic and are expected to increase his speed significantly.
ACCORDING TO THE Balance Bar grant Web site, any amateur athlete is eligible to apply for a grant as long as they “passionately pursue activities that enrich their lives.”
“Geoff is just inspirational for all of us and he’s what [the judges] look for in a grantee – someone who the money is really going to benefit,” said Moore.
In order to prepare for his new adventure, Hopkins is training rigorously, alternating between days in which he practices his push rim training, his hand cycle training and spending a couple days each week in the pool.
To help him train, Hopkins is enlisting the help of Georgetown University’s triathlon coach, Andy MacDonald.
MacDonald, a seasoned triathlete — he’s competed in four Ironman competitions, numerous half Ironmans and Olympic distance races — said working with Hopkins will be a new and challenging experience.
“I’ve sent athletes to the world championships, and this is completely humbling for me,” he said.
MacDonald explained that he’d be working with Hopkins to build up his shoulders, arms and his bodily endurance.
“He’s using his arms for every single thing,” said MacDonald.
Scott Pellett, an athlete and wheelchair user for 35 years, has raced against Hopkins in several competitions. Pellett owns an Internet business, called bike-on.com, with representatives across the country that sell racing wheelchairs and handcycles, which is how he originally met Hopkins.
"[Geoff] has that competitor's attitude, he's a fair competitor, but an aggressive competitor," said Pellett. "Geoff's a fine athlete, so he'll do a great job in the triathlon."
What will Hopkins next challenge be after he’s conquered the Sylvania Triathlon?
“I would absolutely love to go to Kona to compete in the Ironman and one of my future things is to become a certified scuba diver,” said Hopkins. “Everything is out there for people with disabilities to do, you just have to take part in it.”