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Winning Wheels: Student overcomes disability en route to becoming a champion

The drive within a true athlete never ceases.

For Grand Rapids senior Dan DeWitt, his competitive nature helped him overcome an obstacle most people dread even to consider.

On Aug. 23, 2009, DeWitt compacted his T5 and T6 vertebrae after he was thrown 15 yards from his dirt bike. Three weeks before his 19th birthday, Dewitt would be paralyzed from the bottom of his sternum.

About three months after sustaining his injury and after countless hours of therapy, doctors informed DeWitt he would never be able to walk again.

At first glance, the tattoo on his back that reads “Everything happens for a reason,” seems to be mocking him, yet it remains an important mantra.

“I realized I was going to have to figure out how to live with this,” Dewitt said. “So, I tried to find ways to make life a little simpler. Getting out with friends and other people who are chair users was huge for me.”

A former wrestler at Northview High School, DeWitt still yearned for competition despite his disability. As a result, with the help of his new chair-using friends, he discovered his love for one sport in particular: Handcycling.

Since then, Dewitt has been reaching downhill speeds as high as 45 mph in the intense sport for more than three years.

“I like going fast,” said the general management major. “It’s how I got in the chair, but I really enjoy being able to go that fast on my bike. It gives a nice sense of freedom, and once I first did the (Grand Rapids) River Bank Run, I was hooked.”

Handcycling, which consists of using one’s arms rather than legs to power what is typically a reclined tricycle, is far more than a mere hobby for DeWitt.

During the racing season in the summer, he rides four days a week, totaling somewhere between 100-150 miles. This year, he competed in eight different races against other people with disabilities at the state and national levels.

Consistently placing first or behind only national champions, 2013 was DeWitt’s best year in terms of personal record times and finishes.

Among other notable accomplishments, DeWitt was the champion of the 2013 Michigan Hand Cycle Racing Series, which was comprised of the best aggregate scores from four of the event’s five races.

At the national level, DeWitt has not enjoyed as many top finishes as a result of stiffer, more experienced and better funded competition.

“I’ve raced against people who have medaled in the London games," DeWitt said. "As difficult as it is to not finish as well as them, it’s still a big accomplishment, given that school is my main priority."

However, DeWitt is at least a decade younger than the vast majority of his competition and his future appears bright in the sport.

“It feels good being only 23 to know that the couple of people I know in the sport who are elite are watching me and saying that you have a lot of potential. When a lot of guys you race against are 35-45 years old and you’re only 23, you have a lot of time to accomplish a lot.”

This year, DeWitt missed the time requirements for the emerging talent pool of USA Cycling Paralympians by only 2.42 seconds.

It is his intention to meet this goal during next season.

When he is not handcycling or attending courses as a full-time student, DeWitt also enjoys playing “murderball.”

Murderball, also known as wheelchair rugby, is a high-contact sport that combines various elements of wheelchair basketball, rugby union, hockey and handball.

DeWitt wishes he could play that sport competitively as well, however, he lacks a hand disability, which is required. Nevertheless, he enjoys it immensely.

“I love the physical aspect,” DeWitt said. “The chairs collide so hard that they will actually flip over.”

In terms of relaxation, DeWitt has fun doing everything from playing "Call of Duty" to watching "It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia" with friends.

Friend and frequent workout partner Michael Schmidt said the two try to hang out whenever possible, especially when exercising.

“Whenever we work out and I max out, I like to have Dan there because he is able to motivate me and push me really hard,” the Mason senior said.

Schmidt said DeWitt is like an open book, unafraid to discuss anything about his disability, explaining that he will answer any question and generally keeps a good sense of humor about his situation.

“I’ve heard him say, 'Don’t ask a question you don’t want an answer to,'” Schmidt said. “He’ll answer even deep questions, and I think it’s admirable for him to be able to talk about that sort of stuff.”

DeWitt said he is not afraid to joke about his disability to able bodies such as Schmidt. It is important to accept and teach others about it.

“I’ve been out in the freezing winter before and people will ask, ‘Are your legs cold?’” DeWitt said. “I’ll respond and say, ‘They’re so cold, I can’t feel them.’”