By now, Krzysztof Jarzebski is well into his trip across the U.S., but a few days ago, it looked like he might not make the trek at all: Thieves stole the Polish paralympian's custom-made handcycle, worth some $13,000, before he could get rolling.
The directors of Berkeley's Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program heard about the theft, and loaned Jarzebski, 53, one of their adaptive bicycles. He set out on his San Francisco-to-New York journey this week with a goal of logging 200 miles a day.
"As a San Francisco native I was ashamed that this theft could happen in our city, and wanted to help make it right," said Greg Milano, the organization's cycling program coordinator. The bike was stolen from the rectory of a church that was putting Jarzebski up.
Milano said the team at BORP knows what it feels like to have a bike stolen: The agency was robbed of more than 20 adaptive bicycles, for use by riders with disabilities, a few years ago. Generous Bay Area donors replenished its stock.
The athlete had resigned himself to a severely truncated trip via conventional wheelchair when Milano rang.
Jarzebki described himself as a "very strong man, but brought to tears by the generosity of fellow athletes" when he came to the BORP Cycling Center in Berkeley and met several.
"He got pretty choked up," Milano said. "It was cool."
A handcycle is a three-wheeled vehicle, pedaled with the arms. BORP has loaned adaptive cycles for long treks -- a Seattle-to-Portland ride, most recently -- but none quite this ambitious. The trip will involve crossing the Rockies.
Milano said Jerzebski will be demonstrating that people with disabilities can do whatever they set their minds to, but allowed that he is an elite athlete.
"He's doing something not everyone could do," Milano said, but will raise awareness nonetheless: "Here in Berkeley -- in California -- we have made a lot of progress in disability rights. That's not true everywhere."
Jarzebski, who lost his legs to cancer in 1991, speaks no English. Fortunately his SAG driver (Support and Gear), a medical doctor, does.
Athletes with disabilities founded BORP 30 years ago to make sports available to youth and adults who live with paraplegia, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, head injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, strokes, amputations, and sensory and visual impairments.
In addition to handcycling, it also holds wheelchair basketball, power soccer, track and field, and ice hockey.
People often make the mistake of confusing Paralympics with the Special Olympics, an event for those with development disabilities.
"In the Special Olympics, they say 'Everyone is a winner,'" Milano said. "We say, you're a winner if you won the game.'" Striving to win develops life skills including teamwork, discipline and goal-setting, he said.
When Jarzebksi reaches New York in four weeks, he will ship the handcycle back to BORP.
"He is very much hoping his stolen bicycle is recovered between now and when he completes his trip," Milano said.
To follow Mr. Jarzebski's journey, visit his website (in Polish).