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Wheelchair racer brings positive message to KOTA conference

Steve Jones

A keynote speaker who knows firsthand the challenge of overcoming a devastating injury will highlight the Kentucky Occupational Therapy’s annual conference this weekend at Spalding University.

On Saturday morning, marathon wheelchair racer Paul Erway, who began his racing career in the aftermath of one major accident, then continued it following another one, will give what he hopes are uplifting remarks to the audience of therapists about maintaining a positive spirit in the wake of trauma.

“Even if you have a disability, you can still compete in life,” said Erway, a resident of Shelby County. “You can still overcome those challenges – and there can be bumps in the road in life – and you can still make a value of yourself. And the big thing is, the more people you help, you’ll be blessed.”

Erway’s speech at 9:15 a.m., Sept. 16, is titled, “Getting Back on Your Horse,” which is a homage to lessons learned from his childhood and background riding and training horses. It will focus on experiencing a setback or accident and the “unbelievable ride you can take” when you overcome your fears and move forward from it, Erway said.

Erway’s first accident came in 1980, three days before his college graduation. He was a backseat passenger during a car wreck in which he suffered three shattered vertebrae and was paralyzed from the chest down.

A year later, after a period of grief and depression, a friend from college challenged him to a 100-yard wheelchair race.

Erway lost the race, “but that kind of got the fire burning again,” he said, “I said, ‘If I’m going to be in this chair, I’m going to push it as fast as I can.’”

He began getting involved in wheelchair races on the track and the road and started traveling to events. Though he was never able to qualify for the Paralympics, he did compete in the world championships in Europe and has raced in a marathon in Japan.

In 2006, he had another terrible accident. While on a wheelchair training ride on a country road, Erway’s chair got off balance and collided with a pickup truck. Erway suffered multiple broken bones, and because it occurred on a 94-degree day, his back was severely burned while he lay on the asphalt.

He made his way back on the road, however, and achieved, remarkably, a goal of completing 50 marathons in 50 states and 50 weeks in 2013.

Erway said he thinks his experience and message can relate to everyone, regardless of whether they’ve had an accident or not.

“You can learn to get back into things that make you struggle, make you try to achieve because everybody goes through those levels of depression, whether it’s (after) the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one. You have to pick yourself up and get going again.”

In addition to his racing, Erway has also devoted his professional career to finding solutions to help disabled people. He’s a rehab products consultant for Superior Van and Mobility, which makes modifications to vehicles for disabled drivers.

He’s involved with mentor programs for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and local hospitals, and he’s affiliated with multiple organizations dedicated to nerve and spinal cord causes.