Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

He Transformed Fear into Fortitude to Become an Ironman

After suffering a life-altering injury in Afghanistan, former U.S. Marine Capt. Eric McElvenny has become a top competitor at one of the world’s most grueling sports.




photo (c) finisherpix.com

 

For Eric McElvenny, the height of athletic competition means powering his way through 2.4 miles of unpredictable waters, 112 miles of excruciating bike terrain and 26.2 miles of challenging running courses. Completing such trials makes this former U.S. Marine captain an Ironman, an elite and exclusive athlete who pushes the threshold of human capability.

His ascendancy in this grueling sport has earned the native of Belle Vernon national acclaim — and it has also linked him to retired Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward.

“It is a test of one’s will,” McElvenny says.

It is also a long way from Dec. 9, 2011 in Now Zad, a tiny village in Afghanistan in the Helmand river valley. McElvenny was deployed there with a four-man transition team to assist the Afghan army in efforts to become self-sufficient.  

His life changed in an instant. 

​McElvenny stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device — a concoction of explosives, wires, wood and plastic that has caused the majority of U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan.

Concussed but conscious, McElvenny feared for his life.

“I didn’t hear an explosion; I heard a pop. My ears were ringing,” he says. “I was laying on my back and I didn’t feel any pain yet. I thought, ‘I could be paralyzed throughout my body. I could be dying.’”

A medic arrived and feverishly wrapped tourniquets around McElvenny’s legs. Seventeen minutes later he was taken on a four-minute helicopter ride to a U.S. medical facility. Forty minutes after that, he was undergoing surgery.

Six days later — after stops in Germany and Bethesda, Md. — he was resting near his home at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Reality struck with great force: His right leg had been amputated below the knee.
 


photo courtesy adam zyski

 

“I’m laying there, thinking to myself, ‘What’s next?,’” McElvenny says. “The unknown is a pretty scary thing.”

His then-5-year-old child, a devoted wife and a prescient commanding officer transformed fear into fortitude, mourning into motivation.

Lupe McElvenny, now 9, removed the right leg from her Barbie dolls as a tribute to her father. Rachel McElvenny, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served two deployments at sea, put on a strong face for her family.

“I didn’t want my daughter to see me cry,” says Rachel, who welcomed their second daughter, Elise, on July 1, 2013. “I wanted to be reassuring for her.”

And then there was McElvenny’s commanding officer. Isaac Moore’s simple yet profound email provided the motivation McElvenny needed.

Moore’s question: When will you run your first marathon?

It reignited the competitive drive that made McElvenny a football and baseball star at Belle Vernon Area High School, a rugby and baseball player at the Naval Academy and an exemplary Marine.

“Most people wouldn’t conceive of running a marathon after losing a portion of their leg,” Moore says. “But Eric is an exceptional individual. When he was faced with challenges, he would always rise above.”

​McElvenny went further than Moore had suggested. He acquired his prosthetic leg at two months. He walked without a cane at three. He ran his first sprint triathlon — an abbreviated version of a full Ironman race — at nine.

And 22 months after his injury, he finished his first Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. He and Ward connected there, as part of an advertising campaign for chocolate milk.

“The thing with Hines is, he cares about me and my family,” McElvenny said. “I was at his wedding, his retirement party. It was awesome meeting a guy I used to cheer for and becoming his friend.”

​McElvenny, 32, has completed four Ironman triathlons with a fifth scheduled for July. His goal is to be the fastest amputee Ironman in history.

His top time is 11 hours, 22 minutes. The American record is 10:09. The world mark is 9:57.

A stress fracture in his lower back forced him out of a race in Arizona in November; he had expected to have his time down to 10:30 by then.

Moore says he felt for his friend upon hearing news of the setback, but he also eschewed the temptation to once again send McElvenny an inspiring email.
“I said, ‘I’m going to save you any motivational words,’” Moore says. “‘Because now you are the one motivating me.’”  
 


 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

For Three Days, Sesame Street Will be in Pittsburgh

Kids can join Big Bird, Elmo and more Muppets as Sesame Workshop plans three days of events during a stop in Pittsburgh in June.

Penguins’ Lament: ‘To an Extent We Beat Ourselves’

The answer to a self-inflicted postseason sweep must begin with getting the players and their coach back on the same page regarding what’s required for survival in the playoffs.

Picklesburgh to Double in Size for Its Fifth Year

Nation’s top speciality food festival to spill out onto Ft. Duquesne Boulevard.

A Look at The Latest Restaurant Openings in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh says hello to Alta Via, Leo. A Public House, a new Milk Shake Factory location and more.

Is Your Pittsburgh Street on This Year's Road Repaving List?

The City of Pittsburgh has announced its street paving plan for 2019. You’re one click away from finding out if your street or route to work is on the list.

Downtown Pittsburgh Remains a Classic Rock Haven

PM intern Amanda Myers recounts the radio-rock adventures that life as a Downtown student has made possible.

The 400-Word Review: Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

The latest chapter in the Hong Kong martial-arts franchise gets a Pittsburgh release.

The 400-Word Review: The Curse of La Llorana

The latest chapter in the Conjuring franchise concerns a sinister spirit from folklore.

Details Shine in Metallic Hip-Hop Wedding

A graffiti-decorated cake, a sequined jacket for the groom and a violinist playing hip-hop covers wowed guests at this Strip District wedding.

New Restaurants Coming to Smallman Galley and Federal Galley

Look for New Mexican cuisine, customizable chicken and more as half of the Pittsburgh Galley Group concepts change in the next few months.

Design Goes to the Dogs with BARKitecture

Featuring innovative indoor animal shelters designed by local architects and artists going up for auction, the event at PerLora raises money for Animal Friends.

The 400-Word Review: Hellboy

The cult comic character gets a reboot in this R-rated action flick.

5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

For those who can’t stand the idea of leaving their dogs home alone on a beautiful day, these dog-friendly stores, restaurants and bars in the Pittsburgh area welcome humans and canines alike.

The 400-Word Review: The Silence

Netflix's new horror film has a plot unfortunately similar to a giant hit. Can it succeed in spite of that bit of bad luck?

Popular Fried Chicken and Beer Hall Landing in Pittsburgh

The Cincinnati-based restaurant has signed a lease for a 6,000-square-foot space Downtown.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


For Three Days, Sesame Street Will be in Pittsburgh

For Three Days, Sesame Street Will be in Pittsburgh

Kids can join Big Bird, Elmo and more Muppets as Sesame Workshop plans three days of events during a stop in Pittsburgh in June.

Comments

Picklesburgh to Double in Size for Its Fifth Year

Picklesburgh to Double in Size for Its Fifth Year

Nation’s top speciality food festival to spill out onto Ft. Duquesne Boulevard.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
A Look at The Latest Restaurant Openings in Pittsburgh

A Look at The Latest Restaurant Openings in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh says hello to Alta Via, Leo. A Public House, a new Milk Shake Factory location and more.

Comments

New Restaurants Coming to Smallman Galley and Federal Galley

New Restaurants Coming to Smallman Galley and Federal Galley

Look for New Mexican cuisine, customizable chicken and more as half of the Pittsburgh Galley Group concepts change in the next few months.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

For those who can’t stand the idea of leaving their dogs home alone on a beautiful day, these dog-friendly stores, restaurants and bars in the Pittsburgh area welcome humans and canines alike.

Comments

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

Even novice runners can work their way up to these fun and (mildly) challenging races.

Comments


Downtown Pittsburgh Remains a Classic Rock Haven

Downtown Pittsburgh Remains a Classic Rock Haven

PM intern Amanda Myers recounts the radio-rock adventures that life as a Downtown student has made possible.

Comments

Take Your Video-Game Habit Into the Real World at Rogue Laser Grounds

Take Your Video-Game Habit Into the Real World at Rogue Laser Grounds

The pop-up laser tag arena takes the mechanics of online video games into a undeniably cool setting.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Penguins’ Lament: ‘To an Extent We Beat Ourselves’

Penguins’ Lament: ‘To an Extent We Beat Ourselves’

The answer to a self-inflicted postseason sweep must begin with getting the players and their coach back on the same page regarding what’s required for survival in the playoffs.

Comments

Pens Don't Need to Overwhelm Islanders, Just Outlast Them

Pens Don't Need to Overwhelm Islanders, Just Outlast Them

Patience, persistence and taking what the game gives is critical in Round One.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

The 400-Word Review: Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

The latest chapter in the Hong Kong martial-arts franchise gets a Pittsburgh release.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: The Curse of La Llorana

The 400-Word Review: The Curse of La Llorana

The latest chapter in the Conjuring franchise concerns a sinister spirit from folklore.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Details Shine in Metallic Hip-Hop Wedding

Details Shine in Metallic Hip-Hop Wedding

A graffiti-decorated cake, a sequined jacket for the groom and a violinist playing hip-hop covers wowed guests at this Strip District wedding.

Comments

Matching Bridesmaids’ Dresses May Be a Thing of the Past

Matching Bridesmaids’ Dresses May Be a Thing of the Past

Brides choosing one (or several) different colors, but leaving the design up to the bridesmaids, help attendants feel comfortable within their own budget.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Design Goes to the Dogs with BARKitecture

Design Goes to the Dogs with BARKitecture

Featuring innovative indoor animal shelters designed by local architects and artists going up for auction, the event at PerLora raises money for Animal Friends.

Comments

Room2Grow Reveals Your Baby's Gender — With a Nursery

Room2Grow Reveals Your Baby's Gender — With a Nursery

After designing a room around their child’s gender reveal, Chris and Stacy Galiyas are shopping around a reality show where they do the same for other expectant parents.

Comments