Local Paralympian Helman Roman was invited to meet President Barak Obama at the White House on Sept. 29 after competing in the Rio Paralympics. That, however, is just part of his inspiring journey.
Born in Colombia, Roman came to this country at age 18, with the mindset of creating permanent roots in the United States. He married young, had children, worked hard and lived a simple life content of his accomplishments and grateful for the opportunities his new country had given him.
Then came the events of Sept. 11, 2001. That attack on a country he loved awoke in Roman a call to action.
“I couldn’t just sit back on the couch and watch such a violent attack on this country and do nothing. I love this country; it has given me everything”, Roman said.
At 32, Roman decided to join the military. He was denied by many branches because of age until he was finally accepted into the U.S. Army National Guard where he proudly served for 10 years. During that time he was deployed to Iraq in 2006, where he drove over 40,000 miles and provided convoy security. Again, in April 2009, he was deployed to Afghanistan and five months into his mission, on the anniversary of
Twin Tower attack, an IED exploded below his vehicle, extensively injuring his legs.
“I couldn’t feel my legs. I didn’t feel any pain until hours later,” he said.
He would later learn that every bone of both his legs had been broken, crushing his ankles, pulverizing the bones
After enduring three surgeries at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, he spent two years recovering from his injuries, half of that time in a wheel chair.
An angel named Mary Bryant-McCourt from Achilles International, helped Roman find new purpose through sports. Achilles International is a non-profit organization with chapters all over the world that sponsors dozens of marathons annually for persons with disabilities and Bryant-McCourt is founder and director of the Achilles Freedom Team, which concentrates its efforts on the Veteran’s community.
For five years now, Roman has raced competitively in about 40 marathons and cycling races. Less than two years ago, a fellow racer at Achilles International suggested Roman try rowing as cross-training to handcycling. Roman contacted the Miami Beach Rowing Club and began training a few times per week and realized he could excel in the sport.
A few months after Roman joined the club, Coach Stephane Parrish was hired and an official adaptive training program emerged. The Adaptive Program at Miami Beach Rowing Club on Miami Beach is the only adaptive program certified by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in South Florida.
Roman came with power and endurance to the sport and Parrish was able to develop his technique into competition status in less than a year. After competing in and winning numerous Regattas, Roman attended an Olympic Training Camp in Sarasota last year where he qualified as a member of the U.S. Paralympic team and secured an invitation to the Paralympic Qualification Regatta in Gavirate, Italy this past April.
“In Italy, I missed qualifying for the Paralympics by one second. It was frustrating but I was just grateful for the experience,” he said.
In an unexpected turn of events, Helman Roman and Lorah Goodkind, of California, qualified for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and were able to represent the United States in the mixed-double, trunks and arms rowing category. They came in 10th out of 12, not bad considering they had not raced together since last April in Italy.
When asked what is next for Roman, he rambles off half a dozen race dates of handcycling and rowing races he will participate in before the end of the year. In spite of living with chronic pain, Roman is grateful he is able walk a few blocks, all he needs to “get to work in the morning.”