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Tough Takes Triathlon

Transform Fear into Fortitude to maketh an Ironman

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Humans are made to withstand the toughest and most debilitating challenges. Despite suffering a life-altering injury in Afghanistan, former U.S. Marine Capt. Eric McElvenny has become a top competitor at one of the world’s most gruelling sports.

For Eric McElvenny, the height of athletic competition means powering his way through 2.4 miles of unpredictable waters, 112 miles of excruciating bike terrain and 26.2 miles of challenging running courses. Completing such trials makes this former U.S. Marine captain an Ironman, an elite and exclusive athlete who pushes the threshold of human capability.

His ascendancy in this grueling sport has earned the native of Belle Vernon national acclaim — and it has also linked him to retired Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward.

“It is a test of one’s will,” McElvenny says.

It is also a long way from Dec. 9, 2011 in Now Zad, a tiny village in Afghanistan in the Helmand river valley where McElvenny was deployed.  His life changed in an instant when ​McElvenny stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device — a concoction of explosives, wires, wood and plastic that has caused the majority of U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan. Concussed but conscious, McElvenny feared for his life.

“I didn’t hear an explosion; I heard a pop. My ears were ringing. I was laying on my back and I didn’t feel any pain yet. I thought, ‘I could be paralyzed throughout my body. I could be dying,” said McElvenny.

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A medic came to his aid and six days later — he was resting near his home at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego but reality struck with great force: His right leg had been amputated below the knee.

His then-5-year-old child, a devoted wife and a prescient commanding officer transformed fear into fortitude, mourning into motivation.

Lupe McElvenny, now 9, removed the right leg from her Barbie dolls as a tribute to her father.

Rachel McElvenny, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served two deployments at sea, put on a strong face for her family. Rachel welcomed their second daughter, Elise, on July 1, 2013.

And then there was McElvenny’s commanding officer. Isaac Moore’s simple yet profound email provided the motivation McElvenny needed.

Moore’s question: When will you run your first marathon? It reignited the competitive drive that made McElvenny a football and baseball star at Belle Vernon Area High School, a rugby and baseball player at the Naval Academy and an exemplary Marine.

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“Most people wouldn’t conceive of running a marathon after losing a portion of their leg. But Eric is an exceptional individual. When he was faced with challenges, he would always rise above,” Moore says.

McElvenny went further than Moore had suggested. He acquired his prosthetic leg at two months. He walked without a cane at three. He ran his first sprint triathlon — an abbreviated version of a full Ironman race — at nine. And 22 months after his injury, he finished his first Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. He and Ward connected there, as part of an advertising campaign for chocolate milk.

​McElvenny, 32, has completed four Ironman triathlons with a fifth scheduled for July. His goal is to be the fastest amputee Ironman in history. His top time is 11 hours, 22 minutes. The American record is 10:09. The world mark is 9:57.

A stress fracture in his lower back forced him out of a race in Arizona in November; he had expected to have his time down to 10:30 by then. Moore says he felt for his friend upon hearing news of the setback, but he also eschewed the temptation to once again send McElvenny an inspiring email.

‘I’m going to save you any motivational words. Because now you are the one motivating me,’ Moore says.

Read more stories and view more photos on Pittsburgh Magazine

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