PNRC’s Innovation Recreation Cooperative supports handcyclists preparing for Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon

Dennis Clark rides his handcycle in the Covenant Health MarathonWith broad shoulders, muscular arms and a determined attitude, it is clear that Dennis Clark is a strong man. He takes on challenges, pushes the limits and goes the distance.

The fact that he can’t use his legs doesn’t matter. Paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 hang gliding accident, Clark, 72, has powered a handcycle across the finish line of the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon multiple times, taking the first-place prize in 2013.

Clark is one of a growing number of athletes reaping the benefits of the Innovative Recreation Cooperative (IRC), a program of Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center. Program coordinator and clinical specialist Al Kaye explains that partial physical limitations don’t have to limit overall physical potential.

“IRC was designed to be a part of the continuum of care in the rehabilitation process,” Kaye says. “We teach leisure skills to enhance quality of life in a safe environment, and help foster a better understanding of disabilities in the community.”

IRC has worked with more than 20,000 participants and volunteers since its inception in 1994.

Starting with Survival

Spinal cord injury patients like Clark often come straight to PNRC from hospitals where they undergo life-saving procedures. Clark spent 11 days at a hospital in Chattanooga, and says he thought he was simply being transferred to a hospital closer to home. He soon found that PNRC was much more.

“It was so much like being born again…the first thing they taught me at PNRC was how to roll over in bed!” Clark says. “They taught me how to self-catheterize, they had classes on weight-bearing exercise, food preparation, how to get upright in a wheelchair that had tipped over backwards, how to wash dishes – just a thousand things that I needed to know just to survive outside.”

IRC takes patients like Clark far beyond surviving to thriving. They often find they are capable of enjoying life in a way that was beyond belief when they were first injured.

“Dennis was like a youngster in a candy shop,” Kaye says. “He wanted to try everything.”

Today Clark says that hearing loss he experiences as a result of his time in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War is more of a disability than losing the use of his legs. He is practically unstoppable.

“I have climbed the 65-foot tower at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. I have paddled kayaks, scuba diving, shot holes in many targets, tried snow skiing, and whacked away at a golf ball using equipment and instruction provided by the IRC,” Clark says. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

The IRC gets participants started, and then connects them with other resources and opportunities – even up to a professional level. Some stay with the program long term to help new patients as peer mentors.

“Dennis is now a handcycle mentor,” Kaye says. “He was hurt in his 50s hang gliding and now in his early 70s is a wealth of information for others with spinal injury and life in general.”

Teaming Up

Clark is a member of the 2019 Covenant Health Marathon Team, which is made up of veterans representing all branches of the U.S. military. Members serve as ambassadors for health and fitness in the community.

He is joined by fellow IRC participant David Neumer, a veteran of the United States Army, who was critically injured in a mortar blast while serving with Special Forces in Afghanistan. Neumer quips that he was “adopted” by IRC after learning to handcycle while at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

“My involvement with the IRC started when I did my first Knoxville Marathon in 2014,” Neumer says. “They provide us with much-needed support and guidance for the marathon, and throughout the year they provide other opportunities for recovery through sports.”

Neumer was the first-place finisher among handcyclists in the 2014 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon. He has since taken up water sports and marksmanship, something Kaye says is popular among military veterans in the program.

Clark says that the IRC has done more than help him cross finish lines and get some impressive accomplishments under his belt.

“It has widened my circle of friends and led to a huge increase in my knowledge about the disability community,” Clark says. “Thank you, IRC!”

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