When PierAngelo Beltrami first started cycling, he just wanted to lose weight. Little did he know that eight years down the road he would have won two Paralympic medals and would be working toward his third.
Next week, the owner of a Bethesda design firm and a member of the U.S. Disabled Cycling Team, will be competing in Atlanta's Paralympic Games, the premier international event for physically disabled athletes. He'll be trying to pedal his way to his first gold medal.
"This has always been a dream of mine," said Beltrami, 47, who was training for the Paralympics last week in Allentown, Pa. "I feel honored to be on the U.S. team once again."
Beltrami not only made the team but also set a world record during the time trials for this year's games by winning the 200-meter race in just over 14 seconds (14.294). He also set the national record by finishing the four-kilometer race in just over 6 minutes, 11 seconds (6:11:94).
Beltrami said the key to his success is being able to pedal without his prosthetic leg. Because it stays attached through suction, the moisture generated during exercise could cause the limb to slip off. Beltrami has used a single-pedal bike since he began competing in 1988.
The Hagerstown, Md., resident uses a special pedal with a clip to attach his shoe. Over the years, the challenge for Beltrami has been to perfect the circular motion needed to push the bike forward at the high speeds required for racing.
So when Beltrami is not working, he's usually pedaling with what he calls his "able-bodied, cyclist" friends. He tries to leave his office about 6 p.m. so he can train for three hours every night, usually along Beach Drive.
"When you train with able-bodied riders, you learn to be alert," Beltrami said. "You learn how to ride in a pack and how to keep up with them. But I should say that my riding partners have been super-kind and very understanding and have given me elbow room to ride and, sometimes, keep up with them."
This is the third time Beltrami will be participating in the Paralympics.
He won a silver at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona and a bronze medal at the 1988 Paralympics in Korea, where he was the only U.S. cyclist to win a medal.
"He's an example to young and old alike," said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA.
For Beltrami, cycling wasn't only about setting an example. It was about getting on with his life after a motorbike accident and a botched operation in his native Italy resulted in gangrene and the amputation of his right leg below the knee.
Beltrami, who was born in Milan, was 19 at the time of the accident and described himself as a "wild, energetic and somewhat selfish" teenager. He said that even though it took a long time to figure out how to live with his disability, he never stopped thanking God to be alive.
"After the accident, I never took anything for granted," Beltrami said. "I felt that since I lived, losing my leg was a small price to pay for just being alive."
Beltrami, who studied design in Italy, went to New York in 1973 to visit relatives and landed a job at a graphics firm. He moved to Washington 15 years later and now runs his own graphics firm in Bethesda.
The Paralympics began in Rome in 1960 and usually are held in same the same city or country that hosted the Olympic games. The 1996 Paralympics will begin 12 days after the Olympics' closing ceremonies and will include 4,000 athletes from more than 100 countries. CAPTION: PierAngelo Beltrami, 47, in Paralympic trials. He lost a leg below the knee after a motorbike accident at age 19.