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On Sunday June 5, 62-year-old Dr. Paul Colavincenzo finished the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon for the fourth time. But this time was very different. This was his first triathlon as an above-the-knee amputee.
Colavincenzo, an anesthesiologist, husband, and father of two, has lived in Dayton, Ohio since he left the Navy in 1997. He has always been an athlete, including D3 collegiate careers in both football and track. It wasn’t until his early 40s that he found triathlon, taking on events like San Francisco’s Alcatraz race.
But then, in 2009, he started having chest pain while out training. After several bouts of feeling really uncomfortable, he went to see his doctor. They discovered he had a bicuspid aortic value and shortly thereafter, had a routine open heart surgery to repair it with a bovine valve.
Colavincenzo made a full recovery and returned to his normal activities, competing in running and triathlon races with regularity. Then, about seven years later, he felt sick again, like he was coming down with the flu. It wasn’t long before he ended up in the ICU. His valve had been infected and he had septic endocarditis. While he survived this life-threatening situation, it was the start of a new four-year journey to save his knee.
“The same bacteria that infected my heart infected my knee joint,” Colavincenzo said. “I had my knee replaced twice, plus plastic surgery from soft tissue loss. I got better for awhile and then my knee started to hurt a lot.”
In the fall of 2019, after getting to the point of having to walk with a cane, Colavincenzo’s chronic pain and immobility led him to an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, where he had a full work-up. It was there he learned he had a deadly Fusarium fungus, making an above-knee leg amputation necessary to save his life.
In January of 2020, Colavincenzo had surgery, and a few months later, he received his first prosthesis. Initially, he struggled with the comfort of his prosthesis, especially when he tried to return to cycling. His wife, Teresa, surprised him with a trip to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) headquarters, where he learned about the legendary prosthetist Peter Harsch. Harsch is known for fitting para-athletes and veterans to help them participate in sports. Colavincenzo went to San Diego several times to get fitted for a cycling leg and a running blade, and it changed everything.
“When I was at the office I would look around and think it would be so great if I could be a below-the-knee amputee, but then you see someone who lost their whole leg.” Colavincenzo said. “It is all relative, and I am thankful for a lot of things. I don’t like to call this a disability. I like ‘challenged.’ I like to think I can do almost everything I can do before.”
In addition to the trip to CAF, Teresa hired a coach named Sergio Borges, who had experience working with challenged athletes. Borges helped Colavincenzo return to training, and eventually prepare for his first athletic competition post-amputation. In April 2022, Colavincenzo completed the the swim leg of a relay at 70.3 Oceanside.
Despite calling that experience the “most challenging thing he has done athletically,” Colavincenzo committed to training for the 2022 edition of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon a few months later.
“It is the ultimate triathlon,” he said. “I just felt like I had to do it again.”
And that he did.
On a morning that delivered relentless rain and poor visibility, Colavincenzo completed his fourth Escape from Alcatraz with the help of his two daughters and future son-in-law, which he called his “pit crew.” He admitted that logistically it is way more challenging to compete now, but he is grateful for all the support and the team of people he has helping along the way.
“If you’ve had an amputation, you don’t really feel great about yourself,” Colavincenzo said. “You look back and think, I used to be able to do this. I don’t think I’ve dwelled on that too much, though. With the help of a lot of people, I have been able to make best use of what I have.”
The weekend after his finish, Colavincenzo went to his 40th reunion at John Carroll University.
They surprised him with the Campion Shield Award, which recognizes heroism, bravery, or sacrifice on the part of a member of the John Carroll community. The Campion Shield recognizes an individual’s physical or moral actions in the face of adversity on behalf of others and emulates the life of Saint Edmund Campion.
Colavincenzo isn’t quite sure what the road ahead looks like as far as racing, but he has found joy in the process of training again and has reignited his competitive spirit. He is inspiring others with every stride.