The con­tender

With one de­ci­sion, Lit­tle Rock cy­clist dropped the ham­mer on dis­abil­ity.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - SEAN CLANCY

this is the story of a bi­cy­cle racer and the catas­tro­phe that led him to a na­tional cham­pi­onship and a new life.

In 2010, Ja­son Ma­com was play­ing bi­cy­cle polo on a con­crete court at MacArthur Park in Lit­tle Rock when he broke his an­kle.

“De­stroyed it” is a more apt de­scrip­tion. While go­ing af­ter the ball be­hind the net, he pinned his foot against the court wall at an odd an­gle, and his tibia, one of two bones in the lower leg, crashed through the peanut-shaped talus bone in his right an­kle.

“It was one of those mo­ments where I was like, ‘That’s no good,’” Ma­com re­calls on a Fri­day af­ter­noon in De­cem­ber at The Me­teor cafe and bike shop in Lit­tle Rock dur­ing a break from train­ing at the U.S. Olympic Train­ing Cen­ter in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The 36-year-old Lit­tle Rock cy­clist had been a pro­fes­sional BMX racer, a USA Cy­cling Race Cat­e­gory 2 road racer and had be­gun rac­ing on the track. Wrecks and in­juries were part of the ter­ri­tory.

“They all know me in ra­di­ol­ogy,” he says with a smile. “I’ve sur­vived a lot of crashes and ac­ci­dents, and I’ve been to the hospi­tal a bunch of times. I thought, ‘OK. I’ll wear a walk­ing cast and I’ll be fine in three months.’”

It would ac­tu­ally be much longer be­fore he was fine.

...

Ma­com spent his first 16 years in Vinita, Okla., and has two younger sis­ters and a brother. In ju­nior high, he ped­aled a 12-mile route ev­ery day af­ter school de­liv­er­ing the Vinita Daily Jour­nal.

“That was my first pro bike-rid­ing gig,” he says with chuckle. “I got a lot of fit­ness, and I loved rid­ing my bike.”

His par­ents had been di­vorced

for as long as he could re­mem­ber, and when he was 16 he moved to Lit­tle Rock to be with his father. A bass-play­ing fan of punk rock and ska, Ma­com also was look­ing for friends.

“Lit­tle Rock is a big town, and I thought I could maybe meet other peo­ple that were more like me. In a small town in north­east Ok­la­homa, a lot of peo­ple are into foot­ball and bas­ket­ball. If you’re not into that you’re in this other lit­tle bucket of peo­ple, and it’s not a very di­verse bucket.”

He at­tended Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School and played in a band. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he at­tended bar­ber col­lege and rode his BMX bike. He mar­ried his wife, Alisha, when she was 19 and he was 20. Alisha, who works for GenWealth Fi­nan­cial Ad­vi­sors, bought him his first full­face hel­met when he started rac­ing BMX.

“She was like, ‘You’re gonna kill your­self,’” Ma­com says.

In 2004 he turned pro­fes­sional, but a gnarly crash and the re­sult­ing con­cus­sion, along with the im­pend­ing birth of their daugh­ter, Ca­dence, gave him sec­ond thoughts about a ca­reer in BMX.

To scratch his bike-rac­ing itch, Ma­com turned to the road with a plan to even­tu­ally race on the track. He’d been se­duced by track rac­ing as a young­ster in Ok­la­homa, pre­tend­ing that the cul-de-sac he lived on was his own velo­drome and speed­ing around it on his bike.

Track rac­ing also fit with his BMX back­ground. Both dis­ci­plines re­ward fast-twitch strength and power.

He was work­ing for Or­bea, the Span­ish bike maker whose U.S. head­quar­ters are in North Lit­tle Rock.

Start­ing as a Cat. 5, the low­est level of am­a­teur road rac­ing, Ma­com pro­gressed to Cat. 2 in just two years and was a mem­ber of the Fort Smith-based Mercy Health Sys­tems team. Through some of his team­mates, he started vis­it­ing an in­door track called the Su­per­drome in Dal­las in 2006.

Of course, the tracks are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from road rac­ing. An in­door velo­drome is gen­er­ally 850- to over 1,600-feet long, and its banked turns can hit 45 de­grees. A rider needs to reach at least 18 mph just to stay up­right, Ma­com says. Speeds of 40 mph or more are com­mon in rac­ing.

Track rac­ers also use brake­less, sin­gle-speed bikes built for no other pur­pose than to go as fast as the per­son ped­al­ing can make them go.

For three years, Ma­com trained and trav­eled to track races — Arkansas has no velo­dromes. There were a few crashes and no huge re­sults to speak of, but he was hav­ing fun.

Then came the friendly bike polo match — such an in­nocu­ous thing — and his oblit­er­ated an­kle.

With the threat of vas­cu­lar necro­sis — a loss of blood sup­ply to the bone — doc­tors wanted to fuse the bones in Ma­com’s an­kle to pre­vent them from be­com­ing necrotic, but Ma­com wasn’t too thrilled with the prospects. Fus­ing the bones would limit the move­ment of his foot.

“It ba­si­cally just be­comes a foot on the end of your leg that doesn’t work,” he says.

He went through sev­eral surg­eries, in­clud­ing a last­ditch, sub-ta­lar fu­sion that failed be­cause his bone was col­laps­ing from the in­side. Through it all, he re­mained in con­stant pain, walk­ing with a limp and gain­ing weight. At one point, he car­ried 275 pounds on his 5-foot, 6-inch frame.

“It was the hard­est time of my life,” says Ma­com, who now weighs 165 pounds. “I was drink­ing a lot, try­ing to self-anes­thetize. I was in a lot of pain. But my fam­ily and sup­port sys­tem was su­per, su­per good. Alisha told me I had to do some­thing that was a real fix to move for­ward.”

Ma­com, who ad­mits that ask­ing for help doesn’t come eas­ily to him, sought ad­vice from his friend Jeff Glas­bren­ner, the Lit­tle Rock wheel­chair bas­ket­ball player, triath­lete and climber who climbed Mount Ever­est in 2016. Glas­bren­ner lost his right leg below the knee in a farm­ing ac­ci­dent when he was 8.

“He was liv­ing with pain, so I told him you need one of these,” Glas­bren­ner says, re­fer­ring to a pros­thetic leg.

Ma­com made a list of things he wanted to do that he couldn’t with his an­kle in its bad state. They in­cluded “danc­ing with my wife, mow­ing the yard, get­ting gro­ceries, play sports with my daugh­ter.” Bike rac­ing was also on the list.

Fi­nally, while sit­ting on a stack of wood pal­lets at Or­bea’s Maumelle ware­house in 2015, he called his doc­tor to re­quest an am­pu­ta­tion.

On the morn­ing of the surgery, he says, “I was scared to death, but I was more ex­cited about the fu­ture.”

How did he feel after­ward? Did life with a be­lowthe-knee pros­thetic be­come in­stantly bet­ter? Wel­l­lll …

“I con­tacted Jeff right away and said, ‘Dude, I’ve made a mis­take and it’s your fault,’” he says.

Ma­com’s first pros­thetic was a painful fit, and the cau­ter­ized nerve end­ings in his stump were the source of a world of hurt. It felt like crawl­ing around in an at­tic and con­stantly hit­ting your shin on the edge of a board.

“When you first lose your leg, there’s a grow­ing process,” Glas­bren­ner says. “It’s not easy and it’s not fun. The first go-around he didn’t have a very good pros­thetic fit, and I told him that he needed to move on. It’s hard. It’s not like we can go to Wal­mart and get go­ing. It takes a lot of work and a long time to de­velop that rap­port with the pros­thetist.”

Ma­com con­tacted pros­thetist Fran­cois Van Der Watt, who had worked with South African am­putee sprinter Os­car Pis­to­rius, and who has a prac­tice in Green­wood. “I drove to Fort Smith and we chat­ted for four hours,” Ma­com says. “I had a zil­lion ques­tions, and he an­swered ev­ery­thing I had ques­tions about. That was the start.”

A life­long me­chanic and tinkerer, Ma­com also tweaked his new ar­ti­fi­cial limb him­self, us­ing parts from Glas­bren­ner’s old pros­thet­ics and pieces he made with help from area ma­chine shops. To ride his bike, he did away with the foot at the end of a reg­u­lar pros­thetic and re­placed it with parts of cy­cling shoes he cut up, at­tach­ing a cleat that he could then use to clip into a pedal.

His first ride, about five miles on Reb­samen Park Road with Alisha fol­low­ing in the car, “felt awe­some. In the mo­ment I was so wrapped up with what could I do to make it bet­ter. At the same time, I was out of my mind stoked to be past the whole ‘I made a mis­take’ feel­ing.”

His first race as an am­putee was in Fe­bru­ary 2016 in Los An­ge­les, where he clocked a 5:41 in the 4K pur­suit. That sum­mer, he barely missed mak­ing the U.S. Par­a­lympic track team.

In 2017, he qual­i­fied for world cham­pi­onships in Los An­ge­les and placed fourth in the kilo, a one kilo­me­ter all­out sprint against the clock.

“I’m ter­ri­fied of that race,” Ma­com says. “It hurts so bad. You hurt your­self re­ally bad to do that race prop­erly.”

Af­ter he tried a new coach and train­ing reg­i­men, his re­sults faded in early 2018. He reached out to Sarah Ham­mer, the mul­ti­ple Olympic track cy­cling medal­ist and U.S. Par­a­lympics Cy­cling head coach, to see if there was a place for him at the Olympic Train­ing Cen­ter in Colorado Springs.

There was, she said, and he moved in Oct. 1, train­ing seven days a week in the gym and on the bike.

He has help from spon­sors like The Me­teor, Felt Bi­cy­cles, The Big Dam Bridge Foun­da­tion, Dave Grund­fest Co. and oth­ers, but the ex­penses mount up. And be­ing away from Alisha and Ca­dence is dif­fi­cult, he says. Miss­ing them, though, keeps him from slack­ing off.

“I don’t take it lightly at all. It adds to the mo­ti­va­tion, you know,” he says. “I’m 100 per­cent com­mit­ted to ev­ery sin­gle ef­fort, ev­ery meal, ev­ery re­cov­ery ses­sion, ev­ery bed­time, ev­ery bit of re­search or equip­ment change.”

His ap­proach to rac­ing has changed greatly since his able-bod­ied days, when he sim­ply trained and hoped good re­sults would fol­low.

“I’m much stronger men­tally,” he says. “I’m a lot more de­ter­mined and an­a­lyt­i­cal. I started dis­sect­ing ev­ery­thing. You can do all the train­ing in the world but if it’s not struc­tured, it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to mat­ter.”

He used the same me­thod­i­cal ap­proach on treat­ment to his an­kle.

“I wanted to know what the doc­tors were say­ing, what they were talk­ing about, and I wanted to push them.”

On Dec. 8, rac­ing in the C4 divi­sion, he won his first Par­a­lympics na­tional cham­pi­onship in the in­di­vid­ual pur­suit in Los An­ge­les with a time of 4:54. The next day he won sil­ver in the dreaded kilo and bronze in the massstart scratch race.

“It was a good week­end,” he says, smil­ing at the un­der­state­ment.

He re­turned to Colorado ear­lier this month to pre­pare for the U.S. Open on Feb. 2 in Los An­ge­les, and hope­fully a berth on the ros­ter to rep­re­sent the United States at the Para-Cy­cling Track World Cham­pi­onships in Apel­doorn, the Nether­lands, in March. Af­ter that, Ma­com will have his eyes on other goals, in­clud­ing the 2020 Par­a­lympics in Tokyo.

Glas­bren­ner feels his friend will do fine.

“He has done a com­plete 180,” he says. “He’s come out of his shell and he’s be­ing a men­tor. He is re­al­iz­ing dreams that he thought were over long ago.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

An aero­dy­namic po­si­tion is cru­cial in track rac­ing.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

Ja­son Ma­com is pic­tured with the pros­thetic leg he wears when walk­ing (left) and the cus­tom­ized one he uses when on the bike.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.

Lit­tle Rock’s Ja­son Ma­com works out on in­door rollers. Ma­com re­cently won a para­cy­cling na­tional cham­pi­onship in the pur­suit track event.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/CASEY B. GIB­SON

Ja­son Ma­com shows off the gold medal he won Dec. 8 at the Par­a­lympics Track Cy­cling Na­tional Cham­pi­onships in Los An­ge­les.

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