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Volunteers help put disabled on fast track to competition

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 8:15 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ashli Molinero, of Bethel Park, rides her hand-cycle at the head of the Eliza Furnace/Jail Trail in Oakland, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. Assisting in her training is Monica Michna (center, in pink shirt,) and other members of Achilles International-Pittsburgh (from left) Jaclyn Sphon (with dog, Sidney) Russ Manski and Shelli Linn.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ashli Molinero of Bethel Park pulls sections of her unassembled hand-cycle from the trunk of her car at the head of the Eliza Furnace/Jail Trail in Oakland, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. Molinero, who was born with spina bifida, competes in races, and is training for two upcoming marathons in Columbus and New York.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ashli Molinero, of Bethel Park (left) and Monica Michna turn around on the Eliza Furnace/Jail Trail, Downtown, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. Both are members of Achilles International-Pittsburgh. The group helps people with disabilities compete in sports.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Rick Fox, of North Huntingdon, along with Monica Michna (left) and Shelli Linn, get ready for training on Fox's hand-cycle at the head of the Eliza Furnace/Jail Trail in Oakland, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. The group Achilles International-Pittsburgh helps people with disabilities compete in sports. Fox will be competing in his first marathon in Baltimore this autumn.

Qualifying for the New York City Marathon is a challenge for any athlete, let alone one with spina bifida, a malformation of the spine.

But Bethel Park resident Ashli Molinero, who was born with spina bifida and uses crutches, found out late last week that she had qualified to race in New York in November. Molinero, 42, uses a handcycle, a bike powered by a hand crank rather than foot pedals.

She qualified for the New York City Marathon with times from two Pittsburgh marathons, which she completed on an upright recreational handcycle. But she's training for her next marathons on a sleek bike designed for racing.

“The bike I have now only has seven gears; the one I ordered has 27 gears,” she said. “It's a huge transition in technology. I don't know how proficient I'll be.”

Molinero is less inclined to talk about her participation in marathons than about handcycling, becoming an evangelist for the sport, said Monica Michna, organizer of the local chapter of Achilles International, which helps people with disabilities compete in athletics and sponsors them in races.

Molinero joined the group to register for her first Pittsburgh Marathon.

“In 2012, I was having a noticeable decline in my mobility,” said Molinero, an assistant professor of rehabilitation science at the University of Pittsburgh's facilities in Bakery Square. “To give myself a goal, I entered the Pittsburgh Marathon. ... I had a really good time, considering the bike I had wasn't a racing bike.”

Molinero finished last year's Pittsburgh Marathon in 2 hours, 50 minutes, finishing seventh of eight handcyclists in the full marathon. For this year's marathon, she trained harder but lost time, finishing ninth out of 11 in 3 hours, 3 minutes.

She was the only woman to finish the full marathon on a hand bike either year.

“The Pittsburgh Marathon is extremely challenging — to put up some of the times that she's put up, on the equipment she has, and qualify for New York is really something,” said Brad Ramage, 45, of Evans City, a fellow handcyclist.

In addition to working out at the gym, doing yoga and taking spin classes, Molinero said, she cycles several times a week with Achilles volunteers on the Eliza Furnace Trail.

“I do it because I want to maintain my health, to be the best that I can be,” she said. “Hopefully other girls will start doing it, too.”

On the morning of Sept. 7, she and others from Achilles, the Harmarville Outreach Programs and Education Network and Three Rivers Adaptive Sports are putting on a handcycling clinic for anyone with a physical disability. The location has not been determined.

Achilles International's parent organization and the insurer Cigna recently donated two handcycles to the Pittsburgh chapter, and the group is organizing fundraisers and outreach to get more.

“The handcycles can be really expensive. ... They are really personalized by what the rider's disability is and what their range of motion is,” Michna said. The two that were donated are for general use by club members who don't have their own yet and can be adjusted to fit each user, she said.

Bryan McCormick, who is working with Molinero to organize the September clinic, said grants are available for handcycling through organizations such as the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation or the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“It's a really good sport for people to get into at different ability levels, and there are a lot of grants people can apply for to help,” said McCormick, 30, of Munhall.

Working out helps people with disabilities avoid medical complications such as muscle atrophy, said Dan McCoy, 19, a Fox Chapel High School graduate, second-year student at the University of Pittsburgh and sled-hockey player bound for the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

“Handcycling is a great way to stay active and stay in shape,” McCoy said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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