Amputee's Determination Inspires Other Athletes, Prompts Super H 5-K Run, Walk and Wheel Fundraiser in McLean

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Five years ago, an 18-ton front loader backed into and ran over Harry Freedman in a work accident at Auto Recyclers of Leesburg, his family business, and tore off his left leg below the knee.

Freedman, 54 at the time, was someone who woke up every day before dawn to go running. He also bicycled, swam and sweated through aerobics classes at his gym. "It keeps you sort of high all the time," he said of his exercise habit.

So his first worry that too-tragic-to-be-really-happening day was how long it would be before he could run again. That worry was overtaken by others. It took 13 operations in 54 days at Inova Fairfax Hospital to stabilize his condition and amputate his leg above the knee.

Freedman's family and friends -- including wife Renie, hard-driving aerobics instructor Don Brazelton and a passel of early-morning exercise partners -- were determined to give him what he needed to resume his life as an athlete. They raised $40,000 to defray the cost of prosthetic cycling and running legs by organizing a five-kilometer race, dubbed the Super H in honor of Freedman's Superman-like recovery.

"He became our hero," Renie Freedman said. "We rallied around him."

Since then, the Freedmans and their friends at the Sport and Health Club in McLean have continued organizing the race each fall. Proceeds go to the Washington chapter of BlazeSports, an organization that runs free sports leagues for adults and children with disabilities.

Last weekend, more than 300 people participated in the sixth Super H 5-K Run, Walk and Wheel. With registration fees and donations from sponsors (including Darren Star, creator of the TV hit "Sex and the City" and Harry Freedman's cousin), the event raised $40,000, which BlazeSports used to buy specialized equipment for wheelchair basketball and tennis and sled hockey.

"Being in this situation can be miserable," Freedman said of his disability, which has not kept him from climbing back on his bicycle or returning to the pool for morning laps. "But there are people so much worse off than I am. And no matter how hurt they are, athletics and sports bring a smile to their face."

Joan Joyce is the director of BlazeSports' D.C. chapter and a recreational therapist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, where Freedman spent three weeks as an inpatient learning to live as an amputee. Joyce said the Super H race profits have allowed BlazeSports to grow quickly, offering more sports to more people. And sports, she said, are key to quality of life.

"When people are in the hospital, their first questions are: How am I going to live? How am I going to go to the bathroom? How am I going to work?" Joyce said. "Once those basic questions are answered, the question is: How am I going to have fun?"

Seventh-grader Nathan Murray, 12, of Alexandria is one of 200 people who play in games organized by BlazeSports. "I've been doing sports since I was a kid," he said. "It's fun."

Nathan was born with spina bifida, a condition that left his backbone unfused, exposing his spinal cord. He can't use his legs, and he breathes through a tracheostomy tube. But he loves chasing a puck around the ice rink, shooting baskets and even rock climbing -- and it all seems to help him sleep better, said his mother, Joanne Murray.

"The more active he was, the healthier he got," Murray said.

She drives Nathan to Baltimore for weekly basketball games and shuttles him to Arlington County for sled hockey, which is organized by BlazeSports. Never mind that Nathan, who is vulnerable to infection, is supposed to avoid germs and would probably be safest at home.

"If something happens, at least we gave him all the expectations that any other kid could have," Murray said. "In other words, we want him to enjoy life to the fullest because it could end for him at any time."

On a gorgeous morning Sunday, Nathan thanked Freedman for his fundraising by showing up for the Super H 5-K in McLean.

At the starting line, Freedman stood on two legs and prepared to run the race for the first time. For the past five years, he has covered the course using a hand-cycle, a wheelchair and even a Segway. Recently he cycled 100 miles in a day with his 25-year-old daughter. But running with a prosthesis takes special attention to form ("I study walking," he said) and extraordinary balance.

"Getting up to do what you do each day is difficult enough, and then you add this," he said, motioning to his prosthetic leg. "Accepting it has been difficult. It's a process that's still going on."

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