Designing Handcycles, Rebuilding Lives

The partnership between GM, Michigan Technological University, and The Achilles Freedom Team is featured in the documentary "Wings of Angels."

My name is Travis Wood.  I was in the U.S. Army for just shy of 13 years.  On my final deployment my life was completely changed forever.  I was in Southern Afghanistan recovering assets for the Canadian Army when I was targeted by the enemy by an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated by a moped battery.  The blast made light work of the 90,000lb vehicle that I was in and turned the engineering marvel into a pile of rubble. The explosive was 3 Russian anti-tank mines that were left over from the Russians in the 1980’s.

The blast broke my back in multiple locations, my pelvis was crushed and had to have an external fixator on it for several months to try and piece it together.  I broke several ribs, of which one separated and punctured my right lung.  I lost 1.5 feet (yes feet) of my small intestine and 8 inches of my large intestine which resulted in me having a colostomy bag for a year and a half (wouldn’t wish that on anyone!!).  I had multiple burns, broke my temporal bone on my face, had a broken sternum and lost my right leg above the knee.  I recovered at Walter Reed Army Hospital for 2.5 years and underwent 84 surgeries to repair the damages done.  Needless to say, I pretty much have controlling stock in that place.

With my injuries I was told that I would never walk again but I slowly proved them wrong.  My recovery was not without complications.  The medications I was taking to fight infection and the mere fact that I was blown up, caused severe weight gain.  I left the hospital tipping the scales at 302lbs.  Needless to say, I had some work to do ahead of me.  While I was in the hospital, I met this incredible group called the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets.  Their job was to help get soldiers who were injured in combat out of their funk that they get in while recovering.  They were amazing. They didn’t treat you like you were fragile, or incapable of doing things.  They did the complete opposite and were quite pushy in getting you out to just go for a ride on a bike that you pedal with your hands.  Now with my injuries, I cannot ever ride a regular bike or run, so I figured what do I have to lose.  It has been six years since I have met the amazing people from the Achilles Freedom Team and I haven’t stopped riding that bike.  I am more than 100lbs lighter, have done more than 15 marathons and triathlons, and I am training to be a paralympian.

The Achilles Freedom Team gave me exactly what is in their title.  The freedom to enjoy the outdoors.  The freedom to put health back into my life.  The confidence I needed to get back out there and make the best out of my new normal life.  I have had so many doors opened since I have been a part of the team.  I have had the opportunity to be a tester for prototype handcycles that GM is sponsoring Michigan Tech University engineering students to create.   I have not only been able to provide feedback regarding issues and design flaws with current handcycles and identify ways to improve future designs, but I have been able to work with TRUE patriots.  The people I’ve worked with on this project are amazing.  They have enormous hearts and really care about what they do and the cause that they are shooting for.  From the staff at GM to the Michigan Tech students and staff, I have been blessed to have been a part of an overall goal to create a more affordable handcycle that can be used for leisure and competition.  I have made friendships and relationships that I would not trade for anything.

This opportunity was filmed and a documentary was created that I was fortunate to be a part of.  It was an awesome experience.  I enjoyed talking with the cameramen and sound guys.  I may have been a distraction to them but they didn’t seem to mind.

Ben Maenza, the other Athlete tester in the documentary, and I became very comfortable with the shooting. When we were in Detroit to test ride prototype bikes, we were wired up with mics and cameras and after a while in the freezing cold, Ben and I forgot about the cameras and mics and reverted back to military habits and humor.  I don’t remember what we said or did that day that made the two of us laugh so hard, but I do know that the sound guy heard.

The Achilles Freedom Team has something for anyone who has limitations.  Even if you are completely able-bodied, there are ways to get involved by volunteering, being a pacer or a guide, or even by sponsoring.  They have chapters all across the world that help people with challenges overcome them to do something not only incredible, but something that not a lot of people do.  Marathons are just a small part of what they do.  I was able to take part in riding/coaching an amazing young man who was born without the use of his legs, amongst other things.  He had never used a handcycle before and was really nervous.  I saw that he had never left his comfort zone before.  This opportunity to give back and help another future athlete was so rewarding to me.  I saw the fire light in his eyes once he started riding that bike.  He wanted to go faster and harder.  Just like I did.  It was inspiring and it is my wish that more people will become aware of Achilles and what they do so that more of these opportunities can be made possible for the “normally challenged” folk like myself.

Travis Wood is a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Army. After being injured while serving  in Afghanistan, he became active with the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets.

About “The Wings of Angels”: Two years in the making, this documentary follows the story of two wounded war veterans who heal their bodies through the sport of marathoning and the Michigan Technological University engineering students who dedicate themselves to helping them. As they design and build a better handcycle for the vets to compete with, it becomes more than just a grade. It becomes a passion.



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