On a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh’s Station Square, Rory Cooper races his way to the end of the annual Pittsburgh Marathon on his handcycle.
There is no crowd to applaud him and no grand finish line for him to cross—social distancing measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 took that away from the tens of thousands of athletes signed up to run this year. All that marked his finish was a fitness app tracking his distance.
However, as he approached mile 26.2 near Highmark Stadium, he felt closure. Last year, a life-threatening crash nearly ended his racing days.
“It’s not quite the same as having 30,000 people around you, but this was special,” said Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh and a distinguished professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “I wanted to push myself as hard as I could for my recovery.”
Cooper has been on that road since late October, when he competed in the annual Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., a race he has cycled several times before.
Cold, rainy weather made course conditions poor over that weekend. On mile three, Cooper lost control of his handcycle on a steep downhill at the George Washington Memorial Parkway. He was launched off his cycle into bushes after hitting a curb. Among his injuries—both feet and legs broken, a laceration on his back and several scrapes.
With no medical personnel or anyone else around, Cooper realized his best chance was to get back on his handcycle and find help. He would go on finish the remaining 23.2 miles where his wife of nearly four decades, Rosemarie, was waiting.
“It was like he was on autopilot. No one knew how he climbed back on and came back (to the finish line),” said Rosemarie Cooper, assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “I was very worried, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Rosie, I’ve had a crash.’”
After that, Rory Cooper passed out from shock and hypothermia. He would spend the next 10 days in an intensive care unit in Washington, D.C., and in a coma for nearly four of those days.
“I don’t remember very much from that day,” Cooper said.
Combining research with athleticism
Cooper’s passion for athletics goes back to his childhood in California, when he improved his skateboards and bicycles in his parents’ garage using plywood and fiberglass to create smoother travel on more durable vehicles.
However, in 1980, while stationed in Germany for the U.S. Army, Cooper was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle, paralyzing him from the waist down and effectively ending his time in the Army.
After returning home, a friend named Tim Davis introduced Cooper to wheelchair racing. The two attended the 1983 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, after which Cooper began building his own racing wheelchairs.
That same year, he raced the Red Cross Marathon in San Luis Obispo, California, with Davis.
“I have a picture of us in that marathon in my office,” Cooper said. “Our goal was just to finish, which we did. I was hooked.”
He would race throughout the U.S. and qualify for the national wheelchair racing championships in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1983. From there, he would improve in his newfound passion and attempt to qualify for the 1984 and 1988 Paralympics.
As a member of the 1988 U.S. national team, Cooper made the trip to Seoul, South Korea, and earned a bronze medal in the 4x400-meter wheelchair relay and finished fourth in the 10,000-meter wheelchair race.
To date, Cooper has earned more than 150 medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
He has since switched from strictly wheelchairs to handcycling, taking a break between sports to focus on his research at HERL, where he has secured more than two dozen patents dedicated toward improvements in human mobility. These include a wheelchair powered by compressed air, a robotic arm extension to help wheelchair users grab items and a specialized computer mouse for people with prosthetic arms. Just this week, he and his team published a study examining the advantages of air-powered scooters over electronically powered scooters at department stores.
Still in the fight
After being discharged from the ICU in Washington in early November, Cooper was flown to Pittsburgh where he received additional care at UPMC and Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VA).
By December, he had begun training again. He told friends immediately after he was released from physical therapy that he would see them at the 2020 Pittsburgh Marathon, a race he won in 2009 in the handcycling division.
Rory Cooper Wins Excellence in Government Gold Award
Rory Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh, recently won the Pittsburgh Federal Executive Board’s 2020 Excellence in Government Gold Award in the Outstanding Contribution to Science (Non-Medical) category. Cooper is also a Distinguished Professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
The board announced the winners during Public Service Recognition Week, May 3-9. He was cited for his public service and work in HERL that focuses on human mobility improvement, including for veteran patients.
Cooper was selected out of 131 nominations from 20 participating federal agencies. The board is composed of more than 100 federal agencies and over 20,000 federal employees in the greater Pittsburgh region.
One of those friends was David Gifford, a fellow handcyclist who has known the Coopers since 2013 when he did physical rehabilitation at HERL.
“I understand why he wanted to ride so bad in the Pittsburgh Marathon. If you don’t force yourself to do this stuff, then you sit around and life passes you by,” Gifford said. “I offered to ride with him.”
Gifford was in the same Marine Corps race that Cooper competed in, and also suffered a crash that day.
“I finished the race, though I had some road rash and was seeing stars. I didn’t even know Rory was in that race until I saw Rosemarie at the finish line,” Gifford said. “I had no idea what happened to Rory until I got home. At that time, he was still in bad shape and in the ICU.”
To build strength, Cooper and his wife took strolls in the Pittsburgh Mills mall, along with using rollers and weights to train. Before the accident, Cooper would usually work out every morning for 30 minutes. Rory and Rosemarie would also go out on the road every weekend for additional exercise.
While Rory Cooper regained weight and strength lost while in the ICU, one phrase lingered in his mind, “Etiam in Pugna,” the motto for the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. It translates to “Still in the fight.”
“It’s kind of a personal motto, to fight your way back,” said Cooper, who is an honorary member of the regiment.
One physical therapist who oversaw Cooper’s recovery was Chad Evans from the VA. Evans has been working with Cooper and his overall health for the past 12 years.
“His recovery was exponentially faster than usual,” Evans said. “For almost any other person in that situation, it would have taken about three times longer to get to where he is today. Rory is a very determined person. For him to choose the Pittsburgh Marathon as his target date back is about expected of him.”
Evans credits Cooper’s fast-track recovery to coordinated care between UPMC Mercy and the VA’s spinal cord clinic and social work department.
Rosemarie Cooper had one condition for her husband to race again: the weather had to be perfect.
“We weren’t going to repeat the conditions at the Marine Corps race. But the weather that Sunday here in Pittsburgh was perfect: sunny, dry and warm,” she said.
The Coopers and Gifford started in Station Square and made their way to South Side via the Hot Metal Bridge. From there, they went on the Riverfront Trail and traveled outside the city, making their way back after about 10 miles. Cooper finished in Station Square with a time of two hours, 24 minutes.
“I can usually do it in one hour, 45 minutes,” he said.
Rosemarie Cooper said she was happy when her husband started the race, but even more excited when he successfully finished it.
“I like to believe someone out there is listening,” Rosemarie Cooper said. “When I was waiting for him to come out of the ICU, I made a wish that he would enjoy racing again. It looks like that wish has been granted six months later.”
Rory Cooper plans on racing in marathons in Cleveland and Buffalo later this year.
“I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have supported me, especially to Rosie, David and Chad,” he said. “I hope to see people out there again in groups rather than social distancing.”