Physically challenged athlete Humberto Reyna, amazingly, managed to conquer the bike course at the 2017 XTERRA Beaver Creek off-road triathlon on a recumbent mountain bike tricycle. However, because he had to carry that awkward bike over much of the grueling course that climbs high up into the Rockies on single track trails, he didn’t make the cut-off time at T2 and wasn't able to officially finish the race.
His wife Kay told him not to worry about it, “I said, next year, you are going to beat that mountain.”
Flash-forward a year and sure enough Reyna is back and ready to give XTERRA Beaver Creek another go this Saturday, July 21, in Avon, Colorado. It's a story of persistence and hope, and of good people doing good things to help one another climb the mountain of life.
In 2009, Reyna – a North Carolina State Highway Patrol Trooper – was injured in the line of duty and suffered a significant brain injury. As a result, today he suffers from double vision, super-sensitive hearing called hyperacousis, dementia, and cognitive deficits.
“We had been married for 20 years when he was injured,” said Kay. “We were very much in love and did everything together. I just couldn’t give up on him. One of the doctors told me that taking care of him the way he needed to be taken care of would kill me, and I said, fine, as long as I’m here, I’m going to take care of him. I’m not going to leave him.”
Kay grew up in a very small town. Her neighbors – who were closer to her grandparents’ age than her own – became her best friends. As they grew older, Kay helped take care of them, even as they suffered from the effects of advanced age, and dementia. One neighbor, who had polio early in life, was especially inspiring. He led a full life despite his disability making a lasting impression on Kay.
“I had 12 years experience taking care of people with dementia,” said Kay. “But never did I think that would prepare me for taking care of my husband. I never had a clue. I always knew that my husband’s job was dangerous and that he could die in the line of duty, but never did I think that he was the one I would be taking care of 24-7.”
And yet, Kay has taken on the job of Humberto’s caretaker out of devotion and a desire to show her husband that just because so much has been taken, all is not lost.
“I have always thought that people with disabilities needed someone to believe in them, that they can still have a full life,” said Kay. “Humberto still needs goals. He needs a big goal out there and a reason to live and that’s why we are doing XTERRA. Because he still deserves a life.”
After Humberto was injured, Kay began looking for ways to allow Humberto to experience some of the joy he embodied before, when he was an incredibly talented runner, golfer, and swimmer.
“I turned to adaptive sports on the advice of Humberto’s brain injury doctor,” said Kay. “I had never even considered adaptive sports. He told me to get Humberto back on the golf course and into the pool. On the golf course, Humberto had to switch to swinging from right-handed to left-handed and we were zig-zagging over that golf course like you haven’t ever seen. It was the same in the pool. We were zig-zagging across the lanes because he couldn’t swim straight. There was a lot of craziness out there.”
In the early days, Kay found a safety - James Brown from the Army - to go with Humberto through some USA Triathlon races. That opened the door to Project Hero and QL+. The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) has also supported Humberto and enabled him to travel to Project Hero and XTERRA events as one of their Operation Rebound Athletes.
“Two years ago I found out about a grant from QL+,” said Kay. “This year they began partnering with the Colorado School of Mines and are now working on a device to help with Humberto’s ears, so that he can go out into the world and not be overwhelmed by the noise.”
At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, QL+ began a partnership with the Colorado School of Mines School of Engineering and Computational Sciences. A team of five Colorado School of Mines senior engineering students and Faculty Advisor, Tony Vandenberge, began working on the Hypersensitive Hearing project for the Senior Design Capstone Program. The Team’s challenge is to design a device that can help reduce the pain and discomfort that Humberto experiences daily from his hypersensitive hearing.
Court Allen, a 24-year US Air Force Veteran oversees the QL+ Rocky Mountain Region Program. Both Allen and Vandenberge were so inspired by Humberto that they are going to race XTERRA Beaver Creek with him.
“Our goal this year is to make the time cut off,” said Kay. “We got some strategy going.”
Another partner in the project is John Wordin, CEO of Project Hero, which is one of the few veterans’ organizations to also work with first responders, like Humberto.
“We worked with Kay and said we would like to use Project Hero resources to build Humberto a custom, adaptive bike,” said Wordin. “We worked with our sponsors and vendors and came up with a good concept for a recumbent mountain bike. Humberto liked it so we got it built.”
Wordin, a former pro cyclist is committed to using the physical activity of cycling in a group to create a healing dynamic. Friends of Kay and Humberto, who they met through Project Hero - Greg and Carolyn White - provided the grant funding needed.
"Humberto's ability to function physically and function socially is day and night compared to what it was before," said Wordin.
Much of this can be attributed to the fact that once he was given athlete status, Humberto had a reason to not just live, but to heal, to rebuild, and to re-establish his rightful place in the pack.
“Something amazing happens when you get up and keep going,” said Kay. “XTERRA gives Humberto something to live for. Now we tell him, if you want to do XTERRA, you need to eat. You need to stay hydrated. Everyone needs a reason to get out of bed. When your whole life is pulled out from under you, you have to do the best with what’s left. You have to be too stubborn to give up.”
Humberto isn’t the only one whose life has been changed by his injury. Because of his erratic sleep schedule and brain injuries, Kay’s life has changed drastically.
“We lost a lot of friends,” says Kay, matter-of-factly. “People just don’t know what to do with you anymore. And honestly, everyone has their own lives and their own struggles. For us, adaptive sports has been very therapeutic. If you can get into that, you can build a new family, find new friends, and create a new life. In our society, we tend to get caught up in ourselves. But in sports, it’s about the group. Look at the XTERRA Tribe. You can’t accomplish much on your own, but just look at what we’ve accomplished with our Tribe.”
Humberto and Kay live at sea level in North Carolina. Altitude and the challenging course at XTERRA Beaver Creek present a real obstacle for Humberto, who wants to race at the XTERRA World Championship in Maui this year.
“Being able to win – whether it’s a medal or a ribbon – his whole life changes,” said Kay. “Humberto doesn't verbalize it, but I can see it on his face. Look what I did, his face says. He wears his medals on his pajamas, because he’s so proud. So we cannot give up. That’s the whole point. We cannot give up.”
Photo courtesy Bill Sherrod. Pictured L-R: Casey White, Greg White, Humberto Reyna, Kay Reyna at the 2015 Richmond Triathlon.