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

See What Piece of Pittsburgh is Going to the Moon

Of all of the items proposed, this one earned the most votes.

The 5 Best Seats at PPG Paints Arena

From ultra-premium experiences to bargains with great views, here are five perfect places to watch the Pens.

Lawrenceville Distilling Co. Introduces Its Absinthe

Already known for its Parking Chair vodka, the Lawrenceville distillery introduces absinthe named for a haunted house.

What Brought Walt Disney to Pittsburgh

A futuristic attraction at the Allegheny County Fair drew a curious Walt Disney to Pittsburgh — and had a lasting impact on modern transportation.

Writer Damon Young on "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker"

The co-founder of Very Smart Brothas chats about his new memoir — and the state of Pittsburgh.

Makeup Makers: More Beauty Brands are Coming out of Pittsburgh

A pair of local businesses are breaking into the health and beauty business with innovation and tenacity.

How Well Do You Know Pittsburgh?

What do you know about the fountain of youth in North Park? The relics at St. Anthony’s? The history of Pittsburghese? We bring you all this and more in our guide to Pittsburgh lore full of insider info and fun facts. Plus, take our quizzes to test your expertise of all things Pittsburgh.

Are You a Yinzer or a Pretender?

Whether you’ve lived in Pittsburgh your whole life or are a newcomer, there may be things you don’t know about our city — but you should –– so we have these quizzes to test your knowledge of the city’s pop culture, sports, food history and locales.

Restaurant Review: Northeastern Kitchen

The Squirrel Hill restaurant introduces Pittsburgh to Dongbei cuisine.

PM on KD: The Spring Weddings Issue

PM Content Coordinator Jesseca Muslin appears on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live to discuss our spring weddings issue.

Pens Need More from Malkin More Than Anything

Given what he’s capable of, and what we’ve too often seen instead, Evgeni Malkin has been the Pens’ most under-achieving player.

Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants

Step-by-step, these establishments helped build our dining scene. Even better, they still have something to offer today.

Finding a Unique Performer Close to Home

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company searched across the country for a key role in “Savior Samuel.” Then they found Aaliyah Sanders — in Edgewood.

Ten Thoughts While Staring at a Golden Eagle

Reflections upon encountering Autumn, a four-year-old golden eagle now residing at the National Aviary.

Love Thy Neighbor: Donating a Second Chance

Rachelle Jeffers and Allen ‘Bud’ Mitchell went to church together but they weren’t close. That changed when she found out he would die unless he found a liver donor. That’s how Jeffers became one of a growing number of living liver donors.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


See What Piece of Pittsburgh is Going to the Moon

See What Piece of Pittsburgh is Going to the Moon

Of all of the items proposed, this one earned the most votes.

Comments

Finding a Unique Performer Close to Home

Finding a Unique Performer Close to Home

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company searched across the country for a key role in “Savior Samuel.” Then they found Aaliyah Sanders — in Edgewood.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Lawrenceville Distilling Co. Introduces Its Absinthe

Lawrenceville Distilling Co. Introduces Its Absinthe

Already known for its Parking Chair vodka, the Lawrenceville distillery introduces absinthe named for a haunted house.

Comments

Pittsburgh Pizza News: DiAnoia’s to Open Pizzeria Davide

Pittsburgh Pizza News: DiAnoia’s to Open Pizzeria Davide

The popular Strip District eatery is set to expand with a to-go pizza counter.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Seats at PPG Paints Arena

The 5 Best Seats at PPG Paints Arena

From ultra-premium experiences to bargains with great views, here are five perfect places to watch the Pens.

Comments

Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Don’t resign yourself to the gym treadmills just yet – fall is one of the best times of the year to get outside and pound the pavement, surrounded by falling leaves and the possibility of grabbing a hot latte on the way home.

Comments


Ten Thoughts While Staring at a Golden Eagle

Ten Thoughts While Staring at a Golden Eagle

Reflections upon encountering Autumn, a four-year-old golden eagle now residing at the National Aviary.

Comments

Landmark Concert Revives Spirituals on the Hill

Landmark Concert Revives Spirituals on the Hill

The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and Ebenezer Baptist Church team up for "Let My People Go! A Spiritual Journey on the Underground Railroad."

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pens Need More from Malkin More Than Anything

Pens Need More from Malkin More Than Anything

Given what he’s capable of, and what we’ve too often seen instead, Evgeni Malkin has been the Pens’ most under-achieving player.

Comments

Even Brady, Belichick Still Take a Back Seat to Lombardi

Even Brady, Belichick Still Take a Back Seat to Lombardi

Appreciating the Patriots requires a healthy dose of historical perspective.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Happy Death Day 2U

The 400-Word Review: Happy Death Day 2U

The horror sequel pivots in unexpected directions, for better and for worse.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Alita: Battle Angel

The 400-Word Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Producer James Cameron and Director Robert Rodriguez team up for a sci-fi epic depressingly similar to a dozen others.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
An Email Spam Filter Delayed their Relationship for Years

An Email Spam Filter Delayed their Relationship for Years

Sometimes, the future love of your life is just around the corner, whether you know it or not.

Comments

How Many Steps Would You Climb for Unique Wedding Photos?

How Many Steps Would You Climb for Unique Wedding Photos?

Pittsburgh has 739 sets of public staircases, and you can get photographs on them that are just as breathtaking as the ones you could get on more iconic spots like Mt. Washington.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Upscale Townhouses Slated for Strip District Near Produce Terminal

Upscale Townhouses Slated for Strip District Near Produce Terminal

Part of a three-phase plan, the 3- and 4-bedroom townhouses range in price from the mid-$600,000s up to $1 million.

Comments

Pittsburgh Textile Designer Launches Chic Wallpaper Line

Pittsburgh Textile Designer Launches Chic Wallpaper Line

Savannah Hayes adds six new wallpaper designs to her line of throw blankets, accessories and tea towels.

Comments