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After an IED (improvised explosive device) caused Marine Eric McElvenny to lose his right leg below the knee in Afghanistan, he found a new outlet through triathlon. Now living in San Diego with his wife, a former sailor whom he met while they were both attending the U.S. Naval Academy, and his two daughters, ages 9 and 2, McElvenny has already been able to accomplish his dream of racing in the Ironman World Championship, which he did as part of the 2013 Got Chocolate Milk? campaign with former NFL player Hines Ward. But he’s not stopping there—McElvenny hopes to break the amputee Ironman record as well as one day qualify for Kona in his age group (not as a paratriathlete). McElvenny, who has benefited from the work of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound, will be on Ironman Arizona start line in Tempe this weekend, and we caught up with him to find out a little bit more about his future triathlon goals and what Veterans Day means to him.
Triathlete.com: Can you tell me a little bit about your military career and what that meant to you?
Eric McElvenny: I knew I wanted to be in the military. It started in the eighth grade actually. We had to do a career research report, and I actually did it on the Marine Corps. I knew I wanted to be a Marine. … I played sports in high school and I did well in school, and my grandfather, he was an army Korean War veteran—he was the one who recommended checking out the United States Naval Academy. You go, get an education, get paid to play sports and become a Marine. So I did that—I went to the Naval Academy. I played rugby there. I studied mechanical engineering, and my wife did too—that’s kind of how we met. And then I graduated in 2006, and did about a year’s worth of training to become an infantry officer. I did that training in Quantico, Va. Then I was sent to a unit on Camp Pendleton, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine, and I did three deployments with them. So the first two deployments were on a ship, and we just went out and went to a couple different countries … and then my third deployment, I went to Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan, that was when I was hurt.
But in general, being in the military, it was a dream for me. It was something I wanted to do. … I wanted to be a part of that. And you know, when I was a Marine, I was proud. I was an infantry guy, a grunt, but that was special to me. I wanted to be that person on the front lines doing that. It was a great opportunity. I was in the Marine Corps, so it was like family. … It was really cool, some of the floats I went on, the experiences that I had. I probably went to 15 different countries and did a ton of stuff and had a lot of different leadership opportunities. It was such a big part of who I am—everything that I learned while serving.
Triathlete.com: How did you get hurt in Afghanistan?
McElvenny: I was on foot patrol, so we were walking around the village, and I stepped on an improvised explosive device, and it blew up. They amputated my right leg below the knee, it did damage to my left leg. … That was November 2011.
Triathlete.com: Once you lost your leg, what motivated you to get going and start doing triathlons?
McElvenny: I think it was a couple of different things. One is my daughter was 5 years old at that time, and she was just so positive. She never looked at me any differently. Before I left for that deployment, she thought of me as Superman, and when I came back, even though I was in a hospital bed with no leg, on medication, she still looked at me like I was Superman. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I guess it was her expectation of me—I figured I had to do something. And then there was my boss, who was in Afghanistan still, about a week and a half after my injury—I was still in the hospital bed—he sent me an email asking me when I was going to run my first marathon. And that was like, ‘Oh man.’ I guess it kind of helped me flip a switch—instead of feeling bad about myself, let’s start thinking about the future. And because he challenged me to run a marathon, I had to one-up him—I decided that one of my goals was Ironman.
Triathlete.com: How did you get involved with CAF?
McElvenny: I had set a goal to run in an Ironman, and that was even before I had thought about getting a prosthetic leg. But my prosthetist—he was tied into CAF a little bit. Nico Marcolongo is with CAF, and he runs the Operation Rebound program, which is with veterans. … I met him early on, and once I met him and they found out what my goal was, they just began to support me. It’s a great relationship. They sent me to triathlon camp, signed me up for my first sprint triathlon. And then, just every step of the way, they’ve continued to support me—with getting mentors or equipment or race entries or whatever. They were just great.
Triathlete.com: Do you have any future goals for triathlon?
McElvenny: I guess I have two big ones. One is to become the amputee record holder for Ironman. And the other one is—I don’t know how or when, but I really want to qualify in my age group in an Ironman to qualify for Kona. That one’s a little further out, I’m trying to figure that one out. But becoming the amputee record holder—it’s 9:57 right now. I’m racing Arizona [this weekend]. I had a few setbacks, so I think it’s going to be closer to 10:30, but hopefully in the next year I can get down under 10 and get there. But I’ve really been enjoying triathlon and Ironman.
Triathlete.com: What does Veterans Day mean to you?
McElvenny: It’s special because it just shows how the people in our country support veterans now. Coming home with an injury from Afghanistan, I was treated like a hero, like a rockstar, and that’s a lot different than the Vietnam veterans had. We’ve made such amazing progress there. I’m definitely proud of serving our country. It’s a special opportunity where people take the extra effort to thank veterans. You realize that there’s still—right now there’s guys in military, men and women, who are overseas, keeping us safe right now. So it’s an opportunity to honor what they’re doing as well. Now that I’m on the other side, retired and out of the military—don’t forget that someone is sacrificing time away from their family to protect us.