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Racer's life is on a roll

Wheelchair competitor's positive attitude helped trump physical challenges


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - She was hit by a car at 18 months, but injuries, paralysis and the amputation of one leg hasnt kept Portlands Rudel Zaragoza-Rios from going the distance, over and over, in races and in life.If there were a comeback athlete of the year award in the state of Oregon, Rudel Zaragoza-Rios would be in a class of her own — or, at least, on a very short list.

Zaragoza-Rios, 35, isn’t coming off an injury or illness that slowed her down in 2012.

The East Portland resident, an accomplished wheelchair racer who has finished three marathons in the past 13 months, has been fighting for survival since 1979.

It was the day after Christmas that year that Zaragoza-Rios, then 18 months old, was struck by a car while crossing Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in the arms of her mother, Pilar Gonzalez.

“Drunk driver,” Zaragoza-Rios says, her brown eyes darkening at the memory. “Hit-and-run, the same day he had gotten out of jail, with a stolen car.”

Mother and daughter were severely injured. Gonzalez was left in a coma for three months. When she came out of it, she was partially paralyzed. Initially given a 10 percent chance to live, it took years of rehabilitation for her to regain the ability to walk.

Zaragoza-Rios’ situation was much more serious. She was thrown more than 100 feet, her spine landing on pavement, causing instant paralysis from the arms down and splitting her left leg open.

Gangrene set in, and after three surgeries, the leg was amputated below the knee. The other leg never fully developed.

But this is a story of accomplishment, not of failure.

Zaragoza-Rios, one of five children in a single-parent family, would never have the opportunity to run and jump like other children. But through her mother’s guidance and example, and with the help of others around her, she has made a life for herself for all to look up to, including her two daughters.

“My mother is my rock, when I fall,” Zaragoza-Rios says, her voice choking as she speaks with a reporter in the kitchen of her modest three-bedroom home. “She is really strong. Her whole thing in life, she told us, ‘When I die, I can’t leave you anything but a foundation. You take that and become what you want to become.’ I tell that to my girls, too. You guys take advantage of everything you get.”

“I told her, ‘I won’t be here forever. You need to be independent,’ ” Gonzalez says. “Through her life, whatever she puts her mind to, she can do it. It’s been amazing to watch. She is my daughter, and she is my best friend.”

• • •

Gonzalez and her husband, both from Ecuador, split soon after the near-fatal accident. Years later, she would marry Victor Gonzalez, a welder, who would help her raise their five children. Pilar worked two jobs, as a waitress and a nurse, to help make ends meet.

“But they always staggered their jobs,” Zaragoza-Rios says. “She didn’t want us raised by baby sitters or day care. She always made sure we had a parent there.”

Rudel, the second oldest, would require the most care of the children. She went through many surgeries, including a pair of neck fusions, and began elementary school at Holladay Center for children with special needs. Soon, though, she had mainstreamed into regular schools, attending Mount Tabor Middle School and then two years each at Lincoln and Franklin high schools.

“All my children are very good people,” says Pilar, 54. “But Rudel holds a special place in my heart. She has always been a fighter.”

Not that Rudel didn’t feel bitter toward the man who nearly ended her life, and scarred it forever.

“Growing up, I felt resentment, thinking he was out there living his life and wondering how many other lives he took or impacted,” she says. “That made me really upset. But then I realized I didn’t have time to sit there and dwell over that. There were so many things I wanted to accomplish.”

In second grade, there were three other children with disabilities at her school. During physical education class, “we started doing wheelchair racing, and I’d always win,” she says. “I thought it was fun.”

From the time she was 8 until 13, Zaragoza-Rios competed in many wheelchair races through Special Olympics, “and I always got first place, using my regular wheelchair,” she says.

It was then that the idea of wheelchair racing came to her.

“But I couldn’t afford a racing bike,” she says. “Way too expensive.”

Zaragoza-Rios married at age 20, had two children, then went through a divorce.

“I hit rock bottom,” she says.

Her mother signed her up for membership at Bally’s Health Club.

“I didn’t want to go at all,” Rudel says. “But all through high school I’d taken weightlifting. It was something I could do, and I was good at it. So I went with mom to the gym, and it was like second nature to me.”

• • •

At Bally’s, Don Sevetson noticed Zaragoza-Rios working out by herself.

“Rudel was pleasant to everybody, and she worked out like a little demon,” says Sevetson, now 79 and retired after a career as a minister for the United Church of Christ.

One day, Sevetson approached her.

“Don asked what I was training for,” Rudel recalls. “I said, ‘Life.’ I was really low at the time. He asked if I ever considered doing marathons. I wanted to race, but I wasn’t thinking of anything that long a distance. I didn’t think much of it.”

A few days later, Sevetson broached the subject again. Rudel told him she didn’t have the right equipment. He suggested she start with a shorter race. In October 2008, using her regular wheelchair, she completed the Portland Marathon five-miler.

“It took awhile,” she says, smiling, “but when I finished, it was the most fulfilling experience ever.”

Soon, Sevetson came to Zaragoza-Rios, proposing a fundraising campaign at the club to purchase a racing bike.

“I felt a flush go through me,” she says.

In a matter of weeks, more than 20 Bally’s members had raised $4,500 to purchase a TopForce Handcycle Racer three-wheel bike. Trish Suhr, executive director of Oregon Disability Sports, arranged for one of her athletes to help measure and fit Zaragoza-Rios and show her how to operate the custom-made bike.

Bally’s folded, and members shifted over to L.A. Fitness last year. To this day, she is not sure which of the members contributed to her fund.

“I felt embarrassed at first, but ... ” she says, her voice choking for a moment. “They believe in me. That’s a good feeling.”

• • •

Rudel was sidelined for a year after suffering a broken femur, but used the new racer to compete in a five-kilometer race and two half-marathons in 2011. By that time, she had remarried, wedding Antonio Zaragoza.

“When I told him I was going to try a half-marathon, he was a little worried,” she says. “He said, ‘That’s 13 miles. I know you can do it, but if you don’t do it, don’t beat yourself up. Stop if you need to stop.’ But I wasn’t worried about my time. I just wanted to finish. It was hard, but I did.”

On July 4, 2012, Zaragoza-Rios completed her first marathon on Sauvie Island, finishing in two hours, 18 minutes — “a remarkable time,” Sevetson notes.

In October 2012, Zaragoza-Rios competed in the much more difficult Portland Marathon, a hillier course.

There were nine hand-cycle entrants, all men except Rudel. She finished eighth among the nine in 3:12.

“It was the most intimidating thing in my life,” she says. “Many of them were accomplished racers. I was having second thoughts. Then I heard the gunshot go, and I went off.”

Sevetson was there to offer vocal support.

“On three occasions during the race, I heard him cheering me on,” she says. “That really helps, to hear people who know my name yelling for me. Makes you want to go more.”

Rudel’s third marathon was the July 4 Sauvie Island race, and she hopes to do the Portland Marathon again in October. But life is a balancing act, especially with the obstacles she must face.

• • •

Zaragoza-Rios works 24 hours a week at Providence Medical Center. Part of that is she wants to be there for her girls — Pili, 15, a sophomore at Central Catholic, and Brascianni, 11, a sixth-grader — the way her mother was there for her children. The other part is that Rudel is physically unable to work full-time. She develops “pressure sores” from sitting in one place too long. Twice in recent years, she landed in the hospital because of it.

“Once I got an infection in the bone, and they had to carve from the bone,” she says. “They almost had to amputate to the pelvis. But the last two years, I haven’t had any sores. I’ve been good.”

Rudel’s husband is a painter, and “we’re on a very tight budget,” she says.

They made one very important purchase, however, last year during the transition from Bally’s to L.A. Fitness. On a drive past the old Bally’s site, she noticed a truck loading equipment that included the hand-station bike she used for exercise. “It’s scrap metal,” the mover told her. “We’re getting rid of it.”

Rudel asked if she could have it, since they were throwing it away. He said they couldn’t do that. She asked if she could buy it. After a phone call and a 45-minute wait, he said she could buy it, “if I paid $300 now,” she says.

After a discussion with her husband, they made the purchase and loaded it in the car. She has it in her garage and uses it during the wet-weather months when she can’t get in to L.A. Fitness. When the weather is dry, she is on the streets, getting in six miles of training a day. When she hits the gym, she spends an hour on weightlifting, another hour on cardio.

“It’s hard with the kids and work,” Rudel admits. “I wake up at 4 a.m. and get home by 6:30. I have to make breakfast and lunch and then take one of my daughters to school before I go to work. I try to get to sleep by 11 p.m. Five hours isn’t a lot of sleep, but I try to make it work.

“There’s no way anybody could do it without getting the right amount of fitness. I know nothing about training. I do weightlifting and cardio for an hour. The only muscles I can use are my shoulders and upper back, triceps and biceps. But after finishing a marathon, I’m not sore. Whatever I’m doing is working.”

After the accident when she was an infant, surgeons fused a metal rod down her spine. Twice — once in high school, the other time eight years ago — the rod broke, forcing her to stay in a body cast for six months.

“I don’t think I could find it in me to do that again,” she says. “I wear a protective brace on my back, which is painful. Sometimes, everything starts hurting. But when I’m working out, I don’t feel it. When I’m sweating and my body is warmed up, I don’t feel any pain at all. Plus, it keeps off the weight and keeps me out of the hospital. I’m better mentally, physically and emotionally. If I have a bad day, I go in there, sweat it out and work harder.”

Zaragoza-Rios says there are two other reasons why she works her body hard and hopes to continue her career as the only disabled female long-distance racer in the Northwest.

“One, I do it for my girls,” she says. “I want them to see you can do anything you put your mind to, and to finish what you start. Also, I don’t know what it is, but I feel like there is still more to do. I would like to see other women with disabilities competing, getting motivated to get out there and do stuff.”

• • •

The word those around Zaragoza-Rios often use to describe her is “inspirational.”

“My daughter is an inspiration for a lot of people, handicap or no handicap,” her mother says. “That’s the kind of person she is.”

“Rudel is gracious and tenacious,” Sevetson says. “She never gives up, and she never gets mad.”

“She never complains or feels sorry for herself,” her husband says. “She concentrates on her family, her job and her bike. It makes me so proud of her.”

All four of Zaragoza-Rios’ siblings received financial aid that allowed them to attend private schools. Rudel was unable to qualify, however, because the private schools weren’t wheelchair accessible.

When it came time for her older daughter, Pili, to attend high school, Rudel wrote a letter to officials at Central Catholic, “and I mentioned my situation when I was a student,” she says.

She believes that played a part in Pili attaining a scholarship to attend the school.

“That made up for me not going, because my daughter got to go,” she says. “She’ll have the privileges I didn’t have.”

Rudel doesn’t take lightly the help she has received from others, most notably Sevetson.

“I’m very grateful,” she says, tearing up again. “Sometimes I feel people are put there to help me accomplish things. Don came along at the right time in my life. He gave me a goal. I’m still working on it. I’m satisfied, but there is more to be done.

“Until I see more people with disabilities out there doing more things, my work won’t be done.”

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