Mets donate tickets to wounded vets
Ready to race, 'Freedom Team' members enjoy Citi Field
NEW YORK -- Shortly after a blood disorder left Leslie Smith half-blind and forced doctors to amputate her left leg, Smith's medical status was downgraded to imminent death. Her parents were told to begin making funeral arrangements.
"When you come back from that and are given a second chance," Smith said, "you want to do and try everything."
After surviving, Smith did not need to look far. An Army captain before her injury, Smith woke up in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and met Mary Bryant, founder of the Achilles Track Club Freedom Team of wounded veterans. Bryant wanted Smith to race.
Six months after having her leg amputated, she did.
Now another five years later, Smith and roughly 50 fellow amputees were at Citi Field on Friday, taking in the Yankees' 9-1 Subway Series win over the Mets before Sunday's five-mile Hope & Possibility Race through Central Park. Hearing that the veterans were in town, the Mets donated 50 tickets to the group down the right-field line. And Rob Diamond, who has run a fund-raising Web site for the Freedom Team, provided concessions for those in attendance.
"I didn't even know we were coming here until this morning," said Dan O'Connor, a Vietnam veteran and retired Marine. "I didn't know we were going to a game."
O'Connor's story is typical for this group -- meaning it's decidedly atypical. After losing his left leg in battle, O'Connor began racing on his own before the Freedom Team approached him during an event in Atlanta, asking him to join its ranks. Now 62 years old, O'Connor has participated in 14 marathons over the past 22 months, with no plans to stop any time soon.
"He's become almost like a big brother to a lot of the guys," Bryant said. "He's taken a leadership role and really helped. He's got great spirit."
Most of them racing with specially made hand-crank wheelchairs, the veterans run a schedule of more than a dozen races annually, craving the competition just as much as the distraction. When Russell Zelman lost his leg during service in the military, for example, he felt lost and dangerously depressed. But those feelings had disappeared for Zelman by the eve of his first race.
Now, he is ecstatic.
"If it wasn't because of them, and this crazy hand cycle, I probably wouldn't be alive today," Zelman said. "They were there on rainy days, winter days, hot days and cold days with these crazy-looking bicycles."
Zelman, O'Connor and Smith blended in with the rest of the 41,278 fans at Citi Field on Friday evening, enjoying the game, the atmosphere and the sense of normalcy. Even today, O'Connor -- who recalls the days when veterans were not treated nearly so well -- is agape at the opportunities that he has been given.
"This organization is unbelievable," O'Connor said, before strolling back to his seat down the right-field line. "They're indescribable."
Though Sunday's five-mile race through Central Park -- a race inspired by the story of the Central Park Jogger -- is nothing more than a sprint for O'Connor, it is still an event he has been anticipating since he finished his most recent race. After this race, there will be another. And another. He's a self-described "crowd junkie," living for the thousands who show up cheering at every race.
At some point, O'Connor's feats become remarkable for a healthy 62-year-old man -- let alone an amputee. But they are feats that so many of the veterans are achieving daily, without pause.
"This is not about a parade," Bryant said. "This is not about, 'Oh, we feel sorry for you.' This is about showing you how strong we are. And that has been what's huge."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.