Veterans taking on new challenges on the home front

‘Blood, Sweat, Toil & Tears Biathlon’ gives servicemen a chance to compete despite losses

Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Team River Runner co-founder Mike McCormick (right) works with team members during a training session at the Washington Canoe Club for this weekend’s biathlon on the Potomac River.

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Team River Runner instructor Jason Beakes (right) of Kensington prepares to train with Brandon Huff of California, a wounded Army veteran participating in the group’s second annual biathlon.

Three years after kayaking buddies Joe Mornini and Mike McCormick started teaching wounded war veterans how to kayak, Team River Runner is cruising.

What started with two guys and a van with a boat tied to the top has grown into a fleet of kayaks that have been used to introduce a challenging physical sport to about 150 soldiers and marines who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘‘We just have a good time getting these folks out paddling in a boat and racing, and pushing themselves into being able to compete in something they’ve never thought of doing before,” Mornini said.

On Saturday, Team River Runner holds its second annual ‘‘Blood, Sweat, Toil & Tears Biathlon,” a one-mile kayak paddle on the Potomac River and 4-mile run on the Capital Crescent Trail. The primary goal of the event is to provide a goal for the veterans who train with the group one night a week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Mornini, a special education teacher at Walt Whitman High School, hopes events like the biathlon will continue to gain the group exposure and allow Team River Runner to expand.

‘‘We’re just getting to the point where we can go to VA hospitals around the country and say, ‘Look, we have this type of a program we can do this with you,’” he said.

Mornini and McCormick, both from Bethesda, were paddling on the Potomac River together three years ago when they discussed their mutual desire to teach people with disabilities how to kayak. The idea quickly evolved into a written proposal they would submit to the Army requesting to put on a demonstration for the soldiers at Walter Reed.

The soldiers start out learning basic maneuvers in the shallow rehab pool at Walter Reed. From there, they move on to the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin at Carderock. The group also makes trips to the Dickerson whitewater course and the swimming pool at the Mark Twain School in Rockville. Many of the veterans have told Mornini and other instructors with the all-volunteer group that the sport has helped psychologically as well as physically.

‘‘They come back with a lot of issues involved with the war and we’re good stress management,” he said.

After a successful kayaking excursion to Colorado, Team River Runner plans additional outings next year. Mornini is also working with past participants to secure boating resources once they return to their hometowns.

‘‘We get a group of people in and then there’s a lot of turnover because they get better and they leave,” Mornini said.

If the biathlon is a success and Team River Runner is able to draw more competitors to the group, Mornini said he would like to see it grow into a Marines vs. Army event.

‘‘We really would like to have had it be something where the Marines get a group together and the Army guys get a group together and they compete with each other,” Mornini said. ‘‘So we have a little bit of healthy competition between the armed forces.”

Team River Runner’s second annual ‘‘Blood, Sweat, Toil and Triumph Run-Boat Biathlon” starts at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Washington Canoe Club, 3700 Water Street N.W. Participants will include adaptive and non-adaptive athletes. The first-place contestant will receive a cash prize of $500. Registration for non-veterans is $50. More information on the event and the organization is available at