Oswego man pedaling toward Paralympic Games in London
Eighteen years after losing his right arm and left kneecap in a construction accident, Joe Berenyi can't run or jump and walks with a slight limp.
But on a bike, the 43-year-old Oswego man can reach speeds in excess of 30 mph.
His physical talent, determination to overcome obstacles and drive to compete recently earned him a spot on Team USA for the Paralympic Games. Next month, he will travel to London where he is planning to compete in five events: the 3-kilometer individual pursuit, 1-kilometer time trial, team sprint, road time trial and the road race.
In the meantime, he's preparing for his moment on the international stage by taking the same approach that got him to this point.
"I'm just going to take it one day at a time and keep the training going," Berenyi said after a recent session with dozens of other cyclists at a technology park in West Chicago. "I don't have to win, but getting a medal is the ultimate goal."
No matter what happens, Berenyi has come a long way from the time when doctors predicted he would have trouble walking.
Growing up in Aurora, Berenyi was a standout high school athlete. He went on to play baseball for two years at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove.
After graduating from Waubonsee, Berenyi became an iron worker and thought his days of competitive sports were behind him.
But he became involved with cycling and fell in love with the sport. He did well in a handful of amateur races and was planning to do more.
Then came the accident on Aug. 12, 1994.
Berenyi was working at a construction site in Bolingbrook when he fell about 40 feet, severing his right arm and severely injuring his left leg."I don't have a kneecap anymore," he said.
He underwent multiple surgeries and was told he would have trouble walking again.
"So I was just focused on recovering at first and then eventually walking," Berenyi recalled.
He began walking in about six months but didn't think about cycling.
Even though a local shop retrofitted Berenyi's mountain bike so he could ride it with one hand, he refused. The bike went unused until about five years ago.
That's when some of Berenyi's neighbors started riding to get in shape. They repeatedly asked him to join them.
"I figured I'd give it a shot," he said.
Back on his bike, Berenyi rode on trails and grew stronger. He eventually started craving competition.
"I like to go fast," he said. "After getting back on the bike, I missed what I did back in the early 1990s."
Berenyi's wife, Jill, says she wasn't surprised.
"Once he started getting competitive, I was thinking, 'He can do this.'" Jill Berenyi said. "He just set his mind to it."
Now Berenyi spends an average of 15 hours a week training on his bicycle and has become a fixture on the local racing scene. He is sponsored by the Athletes By Design Cycling Club, which pays for his bike, equipment and entry fees.
Mary Lee Geraghty, vice president of the cycling club, says she was impressed with Berenyi as soon as she saw him race.
"He is so ridiculously strong that he can out-sprint almost anybody with one arm holding on to the bike," said Geraghty, who co-owns Prairie Path Cycles in Winfield and Batavia. The bike shop is the top sponsor of the cycling club.
Berenyi uses an electronic gear-shifting system to change gears.
"I pride myself in handling the bike well," Berenyi said. "But it's still difficult with one hand, and I still crash. Everybody crashes."
Berenyi, who has won gold medals in national competitions, learned last month that he was picked for the Paralympic team. He has since been on a hectic travel schedule for training and competitions.
"It's overwhelming," he said. "It's hard to keep the days straight."
The Paralympic cycling team will travel to Great Britain a week before the Paralympics Games, which run Aug. 29-Sept. 9. Berenyi is hoping his wife and their three daughters -- Syd, 10; Gwen, 8; and Tatum, 7 -- will be in London to see him compete.
"It's the chance of a lifetime," he said. "To have my family witness what happens, especially if I win a medal, would be amazing."
Because Team USA doesn't pay travel expenses for athletes' family members, ABD Cycling Club is trying to raise the money needed to send Berenyi's family to London.
So far, the group has collected about $7,000 through donations and fees at events. The goal is to raise $20,000.
Geraghty said part of the money raised through the Winfield Criterium on Aug. 11-12 will be donated to the cause. She said people want to help Berenyi because of what he's accomplished.
"To see a guy who's been through so much turn it into a positive," she said, "he's an inspiration to everybody."