Tan­dem ex­cite­ment

The Denver Post - - SPORTS -

There was the chal­lenge of the phys­i­cal ac­com­plish­ment, of course, and he knew his part­ner, PJ Sny­der of Lake­wood, would en­joy go­ing along for the ride. Sny­der has An­gel­man syn­drome, a dis­abil­ity that forces him to use a wheel­chair for mo­bil­ity. He likes be­ing out­doors and loves racing.

But it had been one thing for Van­der­hei­den to team up in shorter events such as 10K road races with Sny­der and oth­ers with dis­abil­i­ties who have been served by Van­der­hei­den’s Ath­letes in Tan­dem or­ga­ni­za­tion since 2010. The Iron­man would cover 140.6 miles, tak­ing more than 15 hours, 32 min­utes to com­plete on a day in Au­gust when the high tem­per­a­ture in Boul­der hit 87 de­grees.

Van­der­hei­den was car­ry­ing another bur­den at the time. His wife was in a battle with can­cer that she would lose six months later.

He got the an­swer he was seek­ing dur­ing the Iron­man.

“Cy­clists would slow down and talk to us, which was im­pres­sive, be­cause ev­ery­body’s try­ing to do the best time or make the cut­off,” Van­der­hei­den says. “And in the fi­nal chute, it’s a very sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment — peo­ple are cheer­ing on com­plete strangers. I re­al­ized at that point that he was ac­cepted into the triathlon com­mu­nity, and that’s re­ally why I did it. They’re rec­og­nized at races. They be­came mem­bers of a com­mu­nity where they hadn’t been be­fore.”

Sny­der has done 70 events through Ath­letes in Tan­dem since 2012, most of them with Van­der­hei­den, but this week they will em­bark on a dif­fer­ent sort of ad­ven­ture. Begin­ning Mon­day, Van­der­hei­den will pedal Sny­der 600 miles on a bike from the Four Cor­ners in south­west­ern Colorado to Golden as a fundraiser. They ex­pect it to take 13 days.

23-year love story

Sny­der’s fa­ther left his mother when PJ was 22 months old. His bi­o­log­i­cal mother tried to raise him but was over­whelmed and put him up for adop­tion when he was 4.

First PJ went to foster care, but two years later when his spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher found out he was up for adop­tion, she started an adop­tion process and of­fi­cially be­came his guardian when he was 8. Cindy Sny­der is still his care­giver now. PJ will soon turn 31.

“I al­ways thought about adopt­ing,” Cindy says. “When I was young, I knew I was go­ing to teach, but I wanted to be at home with my own kids. I thought, ‘I’ll have my own kids, I’ll get mar­ried, stay at home with my kids, then still do spe­cial needs by foster care or adop­tion.’ Well, I never got mar­ried, never had my own kids. I had that ma­ter­nal clock kick­ing in.”

An­gel­man syn­drome is a neu­ro­ge­netic dis­or­der that causes seizures, se­vere cur­va­ture of the spine and bal­ance is­sues. PJ is non­ver­bal but can com­mu­ni­cate us­ing an elec­tronic de­vice. Around the house, he can crawl. He en­joys time in swim­ming pools and watch­ing mu­sic videos on the 60-inch screen in his bed­room.

“He’s so­cial,” Cindy says. “He can go to the park and watch the kids play and not get mad.”

As Cindy de­scribes PJ’S per­son­al­ity, not­ing that he “likes to be the cen­ter of at­ten­tion,” PJ takes her hand and strokes his cheek with it.

“That’s his ‘Thank you, I love you,’ ” she says.

For most of their 23 years to­gether, Cindy as­sumed she would out­live PJ, but now she doesn’t think so.

“We’re at a point where he’s go­ing to out­live me and I’m hav­ing to plan for the fu­ture,” Cindy said. “That’s one of the rea­sons we’re do­ing the bike tour. We’re go­ing to try to buy him a house so he can live in the house and some­body would come in and take care of him in his home.”

The mis­sion state­ment of Ath­letes in Tan­dem says it ex­ists “to pro­vide the thrill of com­pet­i­tive sport to ev­ery ath­lete with a dis­abil­ity who imag­ines run­ning, swim­ming or bik­ing in in­di­vid­ual events or triathlons.” Van­der­hei­den founded it af­ter com­ing to re­al­ize racing merely for him­self was no longer sat­is­fy­ing.

“I just en­joyed swim­ming and bik­ing and run­ning and I wanted to keep life sim­ple,” Van­der­hei­den said. “It was a way to have mean­ing­ful rea­sons to do what we do as triath­letes, and ath­letes in gen­eral.”

He was in­spired by the ex­am­ple of Dick and Rick Hoyt, the fa­ther-son tan­dem from Mas­sachusetts that has com­pleted more than 1,000 en­durance events in­clud­ing 72 marathons and seven Iron­mans.

Rick Hoyt has cere­bral palsy. See­ing their story made Van­der­hei­den want to reach out to Colorado’s dis­abled com­mu­nity.

“They had as much ex­cite­ment about be­ing out­side racing and be­ing around ath­letes as I en­joyed do­ing it,” Van­der­hei­den says. “I could ben­e­fit from be­ing able to con­tinue phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, and they could ben­e­fit from be­ing stim­u­lated by other ath­letes and the en­vi­ron­ment, be­ing out­doors in move­ment.”

Van­der­hei­den typ­i­cally does 20 to 30 events a year, and Ath­letes in Tan­dem has other vol­un­teers who part­ner in events. He has known PJ and Cindy since 2012 and couldn’t help but be in­spired by Cindy’s care­giv­ing, es­pe­cially af­ter Van­der­hei­den’s wife was di­ag­nosed with a brain tu­mor that same year, putting him in a care­giver’s role, too.

“She was an ex­cel­lent mother and wife,” Van­der­hei­den says. “It was a la­bor of love to be able to give that back to her, at a time that she needed it and I could pro­vide it.”

She died in Fe­bru­ary 2015 at age 54 af­ter 31 years of mar­riage that pro­duced three chil­dren.

“There were things that hap­pened af­ter she passed that helped me fig­ure out who I am and how to move for­ward,” Van­der­hei­den says. “PJ has a chal­lenge of hav­ing a dis­abil­ity, his mother has a chal­lenge with all the lo­gis­tics of fi­nan­cial hard­ships, and my chal­lenge is a ‘mov­ing on with life’ sort of thing.”

And so the An­gel­man Ride (“Four Cor­ners to a Home”) is in­tended to raise money for An­gel­man re­search and Ath­letes in Tan­dem, as well as the home for PJ. It was Van­der­hei­den’s “wild idea” to use a 600-mile bike ride as the ve­hi­cle.

“Some­what to my dis­may, they said yes,” Van­der­hei­den says. “It’s just a way of help­ing some­body out. I get to do some­thing that I love, which is cycling and be­ing out­doors and tak­ing pic­tures. And here’s a friend that will get to go along for the ride.”

To fol­low PJ Sny­der and Den­nis Van­der­hei­den or to con­trib­ute, go to four­corner­stoa­home.com.

John Meyer: jmeyer@den­ver­post.com or @john­meyer

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.