Dee O’Hara of Burtonsville has played many roles in her life: swimmer, coach, teacher, artist and runner.
This year, she hopes to add handcyclist to that list.
The constant athlete, O’Hara, 56, plans to handcycle the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in New York this fall. She will be the first ever to handcycle the walk, said Eloise Caggiano, program director for the walk, in an email.
For O’Hara, the breast cancer walk is a replacement for a dream she never realized. O’Hara had planned to fin swim, with flippers on her feet, across the English Channel, she told The Gazette in 2003. But in 2005, that dream ebbed away after debilitating damage was done to a nerve in O’Hara’s back in a workplace injury. She underwent three different surgeries between 2005 and 2008, one 20 hours long. She had to drop out of the 2005 Marine Corps Marathon a week before the race.
Her recovery took years, and she still feels a substantial amount of pain. She can’t walk long distances or even sit comfortably in hard, uncushioned kitchen chairs.
The athlete inside her has not let her quit, however. O’Hara was a synchronized swimmer for years and a coach after that. She taught physical education at schools in Northern Virginia. She ran five marathons between 2000 and 2005.
“It’s been very difficult for her,” said Harry Taylor of Burtonsville, who shares a house with O’Hara. “She’s an athlete, and having her back injured has crushed her, really. It hasn’t allowed her to do things she wants to do.”
O’Hara has found fresh motivation in handcycling. She cannot walk or run long distances anymore, but the positioning on the handcyle will allow her back to lay flat and let her arms do all the work.
“I had to find something to get me out of here,” O’Hara said.”I figured I may as well give it a shot.”
O’Hara keeps up a workout routine with daily pilates and has been using a hand pedal machine to beef up her arm muscles as well.
“That’s just your arms and hands,” O’Hara said of handcycling. “That is small muscle groups. It’s hard.”
O’Hara said the biggest difficulty is going uphill, pumping the pedals with only her hands, but said she hopes the route in New York would be relatively flat. For the challenging sections, O’Hara can get support from walk organizers, Caggiano said.
“The challenges we envision for the handcyclist are the same as we've seen for our wheelchair participants sections of the route can be difficult or impassable for anyone not able to walk the route,” Caggiano said. “However, we work with participants with additional needs on a one-one-one basis to give them the route ahead of time and point out the sections that could be challenging.”
O’Hara was first motivated to walk for breast cancer because her high school swimming coach, Susan Hoffman, was diagnosed with the disease in 1991.
“She’s gutsy,” Hoffman said. “She doesn’t let anything stop her. She just keeps going ahead.”
O’Hara chose to do the walk in New York so that Hoffman, who lives in Long Island, can see her.
“I told her that I am fine, that she needs to worry about herself,” Hoffman said. “She said she wants to do this one. She puts herself in second place and everyone else first.”
O’Hara has also had several other close friends die of breast cancer, but she said her main motivation to help people with cancer stems from her young cousin, Ellen, who died of brain cancer complications at 12.
“Ellen never got to do any of this,” O’Hara said. “So, when it hurts too much, I think, ‘Oh, what’s a little extra pain?’”
O’Hara has to raise $1,800 to participate in the walk but said she is hoping to raise as much as $5,000.
“It’s my way of giving back, because I am such a physical person,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara cycles with a practice group in Washington, D.C. on Monday nights.
“I think it’ll be good for her,” Taylor said. “I was concerned if her back was able to endure the race, but she needs to do something. I am very happy for her.”
O’Hara plans to increase her handcycling hours in August and September to prepare for the October walk. In the 13 weeks leading up to the walk, O’Hara said she plans to ride the bike 40 miles a week.
“To be able to do it and give back, that’s what I feel good about,” O’Hara said. “That’s my church.”