BEIJING – The first time I met Andre Kajlich (pictured) he was dodging Beijing traffic – in a racing wheelchair.
"Oh yeah, it was good out there," he told me, a huge smile on his face. "You should have seen the look I got from the bus driver."
Kajlich had traveled from his Seattle home to the Chinese capital to take part in the world championship of one of the world's most demanding sports – the paratriathlon. And taking his wheelchair for a spin on the highway was just one of his ways of tuning up.
Kajlich is a double amputee. When he lost his legs in a subway accident eight years ago, doctors doubted he would ever walk again – even with prosthetics. But he was determined to prove them wrong.
"No matter what, I was going to do everything I could do," he said. And entering the grueling world of the triathlon is just his latest challenge, winning a place in the Beijing contest after just one year in the sport.
"It gives you perspective on what you are capable of, really of what everybody's capable of," he told me. "You can choose what you want to do, and once you make up your mind you are going to get there no matter what it takes."
It's an inspirational message he's been taking to other young American amputees. He and his sister Bianca, an actress, are counselors at the annual Paddy Rosebach youth camp, a summer gathering for 10- to 17-year-old amputees, which was held this year in Clarksville, Ohio.
"I try to get them to look at their goals and to focus on those and to make up their minds, make the same choices I did, that you are going to get there no matter what, and try to put the other stuff aside."
And he told me that he in turn had found the young amputees a huge inspiration as he prepared for Beijing.
The triathlon took place around (and in) the Ming Tombs Reservoir at the foot of the mountains that rise to the north of Beijing. It had been the triathlon venue during the 2008 Olympics.
There were nine contestants in Kajlich's category. "It's going to take a special effort from me," he said.
The first part of the race was a half-mile swim that left him in fourth place, followed by a quick change to his hand bike, where he made up a further place over the twelve mile course. The final three miles were in racing wheelchairs, where Kajlich clawed back another place - finishing second. It was a silver medal for the paratriathlon rookie.
His smile after the race was broader than ever: "How about that? Dude, I was just knocking them down."
On his last day in Beijing we traveled with Kajlich to the Great Wall of China, where he was determined to climb amid the holiday crowds along some of the steep sections that are tough enough at the best of times.
But it didn't surprise me by then. This is one very determined young man, and he became an instant celebrity. At one point, people were lining up to shake his hand and have their photographs taken with him.
There is a tendency in China for people to stare at those who are different. Kajlich was wearing shorts, his prosthetic legs clearly showing. I asked him whether all the attention bothered him. Not at all, he said.
"They're nice about it. They're not poking fun at me or anything,” he said.
Then came another request for a photo. "Send me a copy," he said. "Maybe one day I'll see you in Seattle."
At this point I was getting a bit worried about how far we'd come and suggested we make our way back. I was afraid he might be getting tired, but he wasn't through yet.
"One of the reason I made up my mind to use the prosthetics was to get around in places like this," he said.
We did take a break though, because by then I was the one wanting to pause for breath. I asked him what he planned next. Maybe skiing, maybe bobsledding, he said. "There are so many things I'd like to get out there and try and do. I'll do them. I'll figure a way."
As if to stress that point, he'd gone on after Beijing to Kona, Hawaii to compete in the Ironman World Championships, where he beat his own time goals, and came second in his division.
"I've made it through my first Ironman," he told me in an e-mail. "And did pretty well."
And having spent some time with Kajlich I wouldn't have expected anything less.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Posted by BA Haller at 9:13 PM