Cycling Trek Brings Hope, Inspiration to Thousands

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By Joe Sapere

As spring turns to summer, every year for the past five years, three people get on their bicycles and ride across the United States, visiting patients in more than 26 rehabilitation hospitals and bringing hope and inspiration to thousands of people facing physical challenges.

These are the riders for Amputees Across America, a cycling outreach program spanning the North American continent. As all three riders are missing a leg, this is remarkable in itself, but what makes this 58-day, 3,500-mile journey truly extraordinary is that two of these bicyclists have not ridden a bicycle in 15 years. Stopping predominantly in HealthSouth rehabilitation hospitals along the way, this Amputee Coalition of America (ACA)-trained peer counseling team visits patients recovering from physical challenges.

Organized as an annual event, Amputees Across America announ­ced this year's riders are Amber Johnson, Gary Summers, and Joe Sapere. The team comprises two men and one woman, with two of the riders being transtibial amputees and one a transfemoral amputee. One rider is young at 29 years, one is middle-aged at 52, and one is age 65.

As the trio departed from the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Tustin, California on June 5, with every turn of the wheel and stroke of the pedal, the mantra will be repeated again and again, "Don't give up." This message will be carried on the wings of these riders and repeated 28 times in HealthSouth rehabilitation hospitals from the shores of the Pacific to the beaches of Vero Beach, Florida, as the team arrives there on July 31.

About the Riders

Amber "AJ" Johnson, 29, is a below-knee amputee as of June 3, 2003. AJ lost her leg following a nine-year year battle to save her left ankle after a car wreck crushed both ankles at age 17. At her high school graduation, her only goal was to walk to get her diploma. She did. As her ankle injury became more and more painful, she was able to do less and less. The goal of becoming an architect vanished. The goal of being a normal, young adult never happened.

What did happen, though, was AJ finally became tired of living life sitting down. She decided that crawling and wheeling around weren't for her. She decided that she was tired of weighing 280 lb. and watching her behind grow larger every day that she couldn't walk. So she decided to ask a doctor she'd never met to remove her foot and ankle via an Ertl-type amputation.

AJ is a single mom to two wild West Highland White Terriers and loves just waking up every morning! She hopes that her message of being "differently abled, not disabled" is one that people of various ability levels will remember.

Gary Summers, 52, is a left above-knee amputee. A lifetime resident who grew up in the farming community of Mt. Sterling, Ohio, Gary farmed with his father for 31 years and has worked for John Deere Company the last 21 years. Gary and his wife Trudy have a daughter Lori, a son-in-law Rich, and son Troy as well as two step-granddaughters and a grandson.

On April 26, 2003, Gary was riding his motorcycle on a backcountry highway when another motorcycle came at him on a curve on the wrong side of the road, striking him head-on. After two weeks of trying to save his leg, it had to be amputated. Four days after Gary came home from the hospital, Raymond Francis, CP, chief of Prosthetic Services, Ohio Willow Wood, met with him and began the process of fitting him with a new leg. After three months of convalescence and working to regain his health and ability to walk again, Gary went back to work at John Deere.

His aim for riding in the Amputees Across America Bicycle trip is to help others to regain the determination it takes to live a fulfilling life and not stay on the sidelines waiting.

Joe Sapere is a retired Air Force colonel and a below-the-knee amputee due to a mid-air collision with another skydiver in February 2000.

Born in Yonkers, New York, Joe attended college at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and entered the US Air Force in 1963. He then spent the next 26 years flying electronic countermeasures and fighter aircraft. Obtaining a masters degree in education in 1972 from the University of Southern California, Joe retired from the Air Force in 1989 and began a second career in elementary school teaching. He retired a second time in 1998, sold his house, and traveled the countryside for the next five years in a 35-ft. fifth wheel.

An avid bicyclist, Joe spends every day riding, weather permitting. After ten months of rehab, he returned to the sport of skydiving on December 24, 2000, and has been active ever since.

In 2002, Joe founded Amputees Across America, and in partnership with HealthSouth Corporation and Ohio Willow Wood, is joined each year by other amputees to make a coast-to-coast skydiving and bicycle trip, visiting amputees and other rehab patients in rehabilitation hospitals along the way.