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.’”  


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