By Matt Crossman
Tom Davis sounds worn out. In a few days, he will race his handcycle in the New York City Marathon, one of the most famous races in the world. He will fly from his home in Indiana to New York City to compete, but he admits he's not terribly excited about it.
He expects big names in the handcycling world to enter the race, the final one of his season, and he hopes to have fun. And beat those big names, if he can. But it's been a long year -- one in which he won one national championship, missed another by inches, crashed in Europe, raced in South America and won five marathons -- and he is looking forward to the offseason.
Then the race starts. The competitive drive that makes him a world-class athlete seven years after he lost his left leg in an explosion in the war in Iraq kicks in. He cranks his bike up the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. On the way down, he reaches 30 or 35 miles per hour, and the crosswind makes him swerve back and forth, one lane to the other. He motors through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Manhattan again before entering the final stretch at Central Park.
He bides his time until about the eight-mile mark, when he pulls away. He wins by 3 minutes. Which makes him even happier to start the offseason.
* * *
On Tuesday morning, he's back home in Indiana, and life returns to normal, or what passes for normal for a house with four children, a wife and a veteran with scars all over his body.
Davis can drive and grocery shop, cruising the aisles in his wheelchair, and that's on his to-do list today. He writes the list on a dry erase board first and then puts it in his phone. He gives himself reminders about everything in it, because if he doesn't, he'll forget.
Over the summer, he bought his wife six bottles of conditioner but could never remember shampoo. He often texts her from the store, "what am I supposed to get?" He keeps a basket on the counter and always puts his stuff in it -- keys, sunglasses, wallet, etc. -- so he doesn't lose them. All of which are lingering consequences of the mild traumatic brain injury he suffered in the explosion that took his leg.
A long distance runner in high school in Reading, Mich., and also at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., Davis knocked around different jobs after college. The career path bored him, so he joined the Army in 2002. He met a woman named Jamie. She lived in northern Indiana, not far from where he grew up in southern Michigan. They chatted on the Internet, met in person, fell in love and got married. She moved to Germany, where he was stationed.
When Jamie became pregnant with their first child, she returned to the United States from Europe while the Army sent Tom into the field. She had an ultrasound and learned the gender of the baby she carried. Tom called to hear the news.
She said no.
She said no.
Tom paused. He absorbed that news.
Jamie asked him what the date was.
He said April 1.
She said gotcha! It's a girl.
He vowed to get her back.
* * *
In "A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War," author Jim Michaels recounts the explosion on June 3, 2006 that nearly killed Davis. Then a sergeant and squad leader, Davis rode shotgun in a Humvee as it cruised through Ramadi, the most dangerous city in Iraq at the time. While turning, the truck ran over an improvised explosive device. The blast threw the truck two stories in the air. It flipped backward and landed on its roof. A private named Brett Tribble, who had been in the Humvee, died minutes later.
Davis remembers waking up, upside down in the Humvee, his right leg jammed between the seat and the frame. He asked, "Is everybody OK?" Standing in the crater created by the blast, medic Jason Dickerson reached into the Humvee, grabbed Davis and told him to kick himself free. Dickerson, who had been driving a vehicle behind Davis, wrenched Davis out of the Humvee and then pulled him out of the crater, which was filling with water. "I have no doubt that Dickerson saved my life," Davis says.
As bad as the injuries looked -- Davis' face was covered in blood, his left leg was still there but barely, and his nose was swollen -- Dickerson knew they were probably worse than that. He shined his flashlight over Davis' body, looking for more problems. Dickerson tied a tourniquet above Davis' left knee to try to stop the bleeding-later doctors gave him 12 pints. Davis fired a series of questions at Dickerson. "Davis was losing blood, in pain, and about to lose his leg, and yet all he could think about was the welfare of his men and accounting for their equipment," Michaels writes.
Insurgents started shooting at the Americans. "Soldiers manning machine guns on the surviving two Humvees quickly fired back, killing two militants. The firing stopped," Michaels writes.
Dickerson loaded the bruised and broken Davis into a Bradley Armored Vehicle and sped off to the field hospital.
* * *
A phone call beats a knock on the door. As stressful as it was for Jamie to hear over the phone that her husband was hurt, as scary as it was to wonder for days how bad his injuries were, it was better than finding a nervous stranger in a crisp uniform standing on her porch telling her he was dead.
Jamie flew to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C. As Davis lay in the hospital bed, bandaged and sedated, their daughter, then seven months old, wouldn't go near him. He looked terrible.
"I fractured my right knee. Fractured my left femur. Fractured some vertebrae in my back. Fractured the bone behind my head, like the back of your head. Broke my nose. Broke both my arms. Lost like a ton of blood. Traumatic brain injury, a mild one. And I fractured one of my toes."
He laughs. The part about the toe cracks him up.
"I always like to get that one in," he says. "The doctor was telling me everything that happened. He put the toe in there. I thought it was quite comical."
Davis was in constant pain, especially in his left leg. Those days are a fog. He counted the minutes until he could take more painkillers.
Even if the ever-present pain went away, doctors forecast a grim future with the leg still attached. He would never run again. Riding in a car or flying in a plane would be painful, which is bad for anyone, worse for the travel-loving Davis family. If he got down on the floor to play with his kids, not only would it be painful, but he wouldn't be able to get back up. He came to a conclusion: He wanted doctors to cut the leg off.
He kept that decision to himself.
Meanwhile, Jamie tried to manage their daughter and an older child from a previous relationship, while also being her husband's advocate with the medical staff. "Being in the hospital was really hard, because there was nothing I could do to make him feel better," she says. "As a wife, that's how I was raised, that you're supposed to be the one that makes your family better, and I could not do anything."
She saw the agony he was in. She talked to doctors when he shut them out, pretending to be asleep. She came to the same conclusion her husband did. But she kept that to herself. She didn't think it was right to just come out and tell him he should have his leg cut off. She waited for him to ask, and when he did, she gave him her opinion.
That convinced Davis he was right. He told doctors: Cut it off. They did, and the improvement started immediately. Within days he was up and playing with the kids. A few days after that, he wheeled around the hospital in a wheelchair. After being fitted for a prosthetic leg, he began relearning to walk. Standing between two parallel bars in the physical therapy room, he took his halting, awkward first steps.
The next day, his daughter took her first steps.
* * *
Jamie kept a journal of those days. When she reads it today, she is amazed at all they went through in such a short period of time. "It's cool to see how fast God moved, and how fast our prayers were answered, and how fast we were able to get out of the hospital," she says.
Whatever fears Jamie had that the injuries would change her husband washed away shortly after the operation. "I was sitting by his bedside. He wakes up out of nowhere and says, 'Where's my leg?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Nobody gave you permission to take my leg. Where is my leg?' I said, 'Honey, we talked about this. This is what we decided to do.' He said, 'No. I did not decide this.'
"I'm crying. The nurse's face is pale white. He sits straight up and says, 'Remember when you told me we were having twins? I got you back.'"
She wanted to kill him.
And kiss him.
"That was the moment I knew it was going to be OK," she says. "Because of his sense of humor and the fact he was OK to make jokes about it already, and that he was of sound mind, and I was sitting there, and it was OK. That's when I knew -- he's all right."
Tom and Jamie both knew from experience at Walter Reed that some soldiers come to terms with their injuries and move on, and some wallow in bitterness. Jamie was relieved to know her husband had moved on.
"But it was still really mean," she says.
And she laughs.
* * *
While Davis recovered at Walter Reed -- he spent six weeks in the hospital and another 15 months in rehab -- somebody brought in a handcycle. He took it for a spin around a covered sidewalk outside the hospital. He loved the freedom and the speed.
Handcycles have many of the same components as a normal bike. Other than the third wheel, the biggest difference is in the pedaling and steering. A bike pedaled by foot always has one crank up and one crank down. On a handcycle, the cranks go together, and the handles also serve as the steering mechanism.
As the family moved from Maryland to Georgia to Kansas to Indiana, during which time he retired from the Army after being promoted to staff sergeant, he rode sometimes, nothing serious, and eventually stopped riding altogether. He tried running, too, but he didn't like it anymore. Plus it hurt like crazy. Using the prosthetic leg eventually exacerbated his back pain, which led to surgery, and he hasn't walked since 2009.
The bike sat in his shed, unused, for a few years. Then, early in April of 2011, he was praying while lifting weights, doing cable crossovers. "I just felt God calling me to get the bike out of the shed and start riding it again, and racing, and to do it to glorify Him," Davis says.
He did one more set then went home and got the bike out.
The first ride left him so sore he couldn't ride again for several days. But soon he was riding all around the back roads near his home in northeast Indiana, barely visible in the low-slung bike. He loves it out there, just him and the bike, no traffic to speak of or worry about. He applied what he knew about training from his days as a runner, and thought he knew what he was doing. He attended a race camp in Colorado Springs and learned he didn't know anything. When he posted a fast time on the last day of camp, coaches there thought he had a future in the sport.
With a shaved head, a chest like a garage door and arms like sequoias, Davis cuts an imposing figure. He is quiet with people at first, and Chris Daggs, one of the coaches at the camp, wondered what lurked behind Davis' intimidating look.
After camp ended, the two ran into each other at the airport in Colorado Springs. Davis was in the wheelchair line at security. The other line was really long, so he told security that Daggs was with him. Daggs bought coffee and muffins, and Davis told him the story of his injuries, his recovery and life with a disability. The story of Davis' faith is inseparable from those stories, and that intrigued Daggs. The conversation continued on a flight to Houston and then through the airport there. "It really was kind of a life-changing experience for me to spend that day with him," Daggs says.
When Davis decided to hire a personal coach, he called Daggs.
* * *
The United States Handcycling Federation sanctions races. Like in NASCAR, points are awarded based on finishes toward a season championship. Davis enters these races occasionally, but he prefers to compete at marathons, for two reasons. One is they are often easier and cheaper to get to from his home in Indiana, and the other is they pay better. He is on disability with four kids and a wife and needs the prize money. In marathons, he competes as part of the Achilles International team, which helps cover the cost of getting to and staying in the cities where the marathons are held.
Achilles, a non-profit organization that helps disabled people compete in marathons, has teamed up with General Motors and Michigan Tech University to build handcycles. Davis traveled to Michigan Tech in Houghton, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in September to talk to students. Like Daggs, Eric Volk, one of the student leaders of the bike project, was struck by -- and liked -- Davis' intensity. "He is hard-core," Volk says.
Davis gave Volk and his fellow students feedback about the bikes. He told them what he liked, and more important, what he didn't. At a breakfast meeting, this man of few words, who believes one of the reasons God called him to race is so he can talk to and inspire people, gave a speech that left his audience in tears.
"The part that really grabbed everybody is how he uses his experiences racing," says Alexa Ellswood, an engineer at General Motors who serves as a mentor for the students at Michigan Tech. "He appreciates being able to help other people and inspire other people to take that next step. Here is someone who has been dealt a hand that has tremendous challenges. But he doesn't see it that way. He's a wonderful, wonderful man."
* * *
The New York City marathon marked the end of a crazy season for Davis. He represented the United States at a race in Spain, where he crashed so hard during time trials that the fence he barreled into hit a restaurant. Daggs heard the wreck, ran to the scene, saw the fence askew and thought, "holy cow, what happened?" Davis tried to get up and keep going, but the impact had ruined his front tire. The wreck was so stunning a picture of it made the local paper.
He won the time trials national championship in July at Madison, Wisc., beating everybody in his classification by at least a minute. He lost the road race national championship when he was passed on the final turn. The race was so close that he and Butch Martin clocked the same time, but Martin won by about a tire length.
Davis slammed his helmet to the ground in disgust. Jamie made it clear to him, crystal clear, that such behavior was not acceptable. "I heard some lady say (to one of her kids), 'If I ever see you do that, you're done,'" he says. "I thought, 'Yeah, that's what I tell my kids, too.'"
Davis volunteers this story and tells it with regret, because he wants to set a better example than that. He says God called him to race, not necessarily to win, and certainly not to throw fits after he loses. "The people that were there, that was the one impression they ever got of me. Unfortunately, it was a poor one," he says.
Davis and Martin are the two fastest Americans in the H3 level, one of four classifications for hand cyclists, based on the level of disability. They are rivals during races, but they otherwise like and admire each other. They share Christianity as their faith and Indiana as their home state. They have talked about training together next season to prepare for the world championships, which will be held in Greenville, S.C.
They race with very different styles. Martin goes at one speed all the time. Davis is more explosive. "He just absolutely screams on downhills," Martin says. At 205 pounds, Davis outweighs Martin and most of the rest of his competition by at least 50 pounds. That means he has to expend a lot more energy, especially going uphill, and Martin says that's what allowed him to catch and pass him at nationals.
Handcycles aren't nimble, but Davis is known for his ability to maneuver the bike around turns. "He can read the road like a surfer reads the waves," says Joe Traum, who directs Achilles International's handcycle program.
In addition to the time trial national championship, Davis has won every marathon he has entered, including Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh and New York in 2013. All of that success has him fired up for the 2014 season -- and beyond. Daggs says Davis is already in the top 10 in the world in H3, but with just two full seasons of racing, he has not reached his prime yet. Davis aspires to win a medal in the Olympics or world championships.
"I'm a huge competitor, so to beat those guys, beat the best, that's a big thing," he says. "But it's all about bringing glory to God. If I can't do that, I don't want to do it. Sometimes I get caught up in the racing and winning, and I have to sit back and reflect: That's not what it's about. It's about being able to tell my story, being able to hopefully inspire somebody."
* * *
A few days before the Chicago Marathon, Traum and Janet Patton, both of whom work for Achilles International and have become friends with Tom and Jamie, got in a car and started the long drive from New York City. On the way, they talked to Tom on the phone. The Davises' house in Indiana is visible from the Interstate Traum and Patton were driving on, so he invited them to stop by to say hello. Asked separately about their fondest moments of their friendships with Davis, both mentioned this visit to the two acres the Davises live on.
Traum and Patton pulled into the driveway, curious to see where Tom and Jamie lived, curious to see them away from the hullabaloo of a race weekend. (Jamie attends most but not all of Tom's races. When she's not there, Tom often asks Patton to send texts to Jamie that say he crashed. She has refused to get caught up in their shenanigans.) Patton was excited to meet their four children, about whom Tom talks constantly. They were every bit as joyful as she thought they would be.
As the visit ended, Davis said he wanted to show them something. He wheeled outside to a flag pole with an American flag rustling in the wind. It stands near a large stone, upon which John 15:13 is engraved: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Around that large stone, Davis placed eight smaller rocks. He hired an engraver to write on each stone a name, rank and date, representing the men from his unit who died during his two tours in Iraq. On the anniversary of each man's death, he lowers the flag halfway and has a service with his children.
He will do the same thing this Monday, Veteran's Day. He will place small flags in the ground, one for each of his fallen friends. He built that memorial to honor them and their sacrifices. He put it out front so people would ask him about it, ask about the men it commemorates, so he can tell their stories.
* * *