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STATUS:Rio 2016 Paralympic Hopeful (Cycling)
PAralympic champion. Paralympic 3x medalist. 4x world champion. 2015 Team usa male paralympic athlete of the year. 2015 ESPYS NOMINEE Paralympic athlete of the year.
Joe Berenyi was conscious as his colleagues applied pressure to his right shoulder. He didn't remember the fall, but he remembered lying on the ground. He was screaming, but he didn't remember his arm hurting as much as he remembered the piercing pain in his left knee.
It was a Friday in August 1994. It was the last piece of steel being put up before the lunch break. And it was the last time Berenyi would have his right arm and left kneecap.
As the Aurora native stood on the steel skeleton of the Bolingbrook movie theater, he and another ironworker fell 40 feet to the ground when a steel beam was knocked loose.
The ambulance attempting to pick up Berenyi got stuck in the mud, so a helicopter transported him to the hospital. When he woke up, his girlfriend, Jill, was by his side.
"We were looking at rings prior to that, so she had a big choice," Joe said. "No arm, take care of some guy the rest of your life. All those things I'm sure went through her head."
"It was five minutes before lunch, and he was going to go get my engagement ring at lunchtime," Jill said. "It's been a blessing for both of us that it's worked out this way. … There was never really any doubt of 'Will we get married?' or anything like that; it was 'OK, how are we going to do this now?' "
His girlfriend of 41/2 years is now his wife of 20 years, and she will be by Joe's side as they walk down the red carpet Wednesday in Los Angeles at the ESPYs, ESPN's annual sports awards.
Berenyi, 46, a 2012 Paralympic Games gold medalist in cycling who won two world titles at this year's Para-cycling Track World Championships, is one of five nominees for best male athlete with a disability.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "I don't do it for the recognition or for anyone else really; it's just so I can do the best I can do with what I have."
After a 13-year hiatus from cycling, Berenyi got into biking again after his neighbor Sal Dalo and friend Bill Stritzel invited him for a ride along the Fox River trail. He had tried riding twice since his accident — Prairie Path Cycles configured his mountain bike for one-arm usage — but it didn't work out.
Overweight, out of shape and trying to ride with a bad leg, Berenyi said he struggled to keep up with his friends.
"The first ride we went on, I told Sal: 'Let's make this guy never want to come back again. Let's lose him,' " Stritzel said. "I never thought of it in a negative way. If you're around Joe long enough, you forget that he has a handicap. … He doesn't want to be treated any differently."
"It was probably one of the hardest rides ever, even to this day," Berenyi said. "I was determined not to hold them back."
Berenyi's greatest challenge since returning to cycling has been his balance. In 2013, he broke his shoulder and dislocated a knee tendon in a fall at the World Cup. Despite those injuries, he continued to race at the event and managed to finish second in the time trial. He now has a central handlebar that helps him maintain his balance.
The former ironworker is now a full-time cyclist who works out in his basement during the winter and rides on the country roads around his house in Oswego when it's warm. No matter where he's training, his workout consists of high-intensity, short-interval sessions.
Berenyi's accident did not damage or minimize his competitive spirit; it only set him back. He needed to use a wheelchair and a walker the first year. A baseball player for two years at Waubonsee Community College, Berenyi had picked up riding the year before his accident and raced in a couple of amateur events.
He started riding the trails around his house to get back in shape. He lost his plump frame, but he did not lose in his local competitions. In addition to competitive races, Berenyi also did 25-, 40-, and 62-mile fun rides around the area for endurance.
People noticed and suggested he try out for the Paralympic team. So in 2010, at the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Road National Championships in Oregon, Berenyi rode off with his first silver medal. Two years later at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, he earned gold, silver and bronze medals.
"Joe is one determined guy in everything he does," Stritzel said. "I like to think we were helpful in getting his drive back, and then it just became an obsession with him, where biking was everything."
Rio de Janeiro could be his last Paralympics. Trials begin in February, and if he doesn't qualify then, he can try again in June.
It won't be his last race, however. In addition to missing the local scene, Berenyi said he misses being at home with his three daughters.
"I'm looking forward to spending more time with them," he said. "Even this year, I cut back some of the travel. … The more you're gone, the more they get used to you not being here."
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