Freedom Chair riders aren't just our customers - they're part of the GRIT family. We like to stay in touch, and there's nothing we love more than seeing pictures and hearing stories about their Freedom Chair experiences.
Today's Rider Spotlight features Bennie Jose Perez. Bennie is an 8-year Marine Corps veteran (1991-1999), adaptive athlete, and aspiring Paralympian, who strongly believes that his ability is stronger than his disability. He is an above-knee amputee since 2009, who faces daily challenges with severe phantom pain, neuropathic pain and severe muscle spasms that prevent him from wearing a prosthesis. “At times, my pain can be so excruciating that I can’t even sleep due to the sharp, shooting, or burning sensations and the uncomfortable feeling of numbness,” he reports. After a knee reconstruction surgery in June 1999, Bennie’s leg became infected with osteomyelitis. After several surgeries in attempt to remove the infection within a ten-year period, Bennie made the ultimate decision to have his leg amputated.
In 2013, Bennie made a life-changing decision. Battling severe arthritis in his good knee and borderline diabetes due to being 33lbs overweight, he decided to use his everyday wheelchair to get healthy and fit. Bennie’s hard work over the last three years has paid off and lost 53 pounds total and is no longer at risk for diabetes.
Since his first 5K race in his everyday wheelchair on Veterans Day 2013, Bennie has completed 45 other races: from a short 2.8 mile, to challenging half marathon road and trail races, full marathon road and trail races, a 50K road ultra-marathon, a 50-mile road ultra-marathon, a 60-mile trail ultra-marathon, and completed a 113.5-mile trail ultra-marathon at the Snowdrop Ultra 55 in 2015. In a majority of his races, he proudly represents Team Red, White, and Blue, a veteran’s non-profit organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans through physical and social activity. “I take great pride in wearing the Team RWB Eagle during all of my events as a symbol of the strength of a partnership between civilians and veterans to enable America to fly higher,” Bennie explains.
Bennie extends his sincere gratitude to Sydney Lambert, a fellow runner, who came up with the idea of purchasing a piece of equipment for Bennie to accomplish his races on the trails. He had already achieved a half marathon trail race in Dec 2014 (finishing at 7:29:57) and a 25K trail race in April 2015 (finishing at 11:16:44), both while using his everyday wheelchair. The Brazos Bend Park’s trails in which he achieved this were not suited for an everyday wheelchair, but Bennie's determination spoke volumes as he pushed up the inclines and through all the mud, and for most of the race he had to get off of his chair to push it while hopping. Then, when Sydney spoke with Rob and Rachel Goyen, race directors for Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT), they both agreed Bennie deserved to be out on the trails with a better piece of equipment. Its website reads “Because TROT is a community based company, we aim to always involve and benefit the community by giving back in various ways. While challenging our advanced trail runners, we want to encourage all levels of runners to come and experience the wonders of trail running in Texas . . . Our races are not only implemented to challenge our runners physically and mentally, but to share to beauty and charm that our Texas State Parks have to offer.” So, Robert and Rachel created a GoFundMe page and raised enough funds to purchase a GRIT Freedom Chair and other equipment Bennie needed for racing in road races. “I had my eye on this chair for over two years, but I couldn’t afford it,” Bennie recalls.
On August 27, 2015, surrounded by fellow runners and close friends, Bennie was presented with the GRIT Freedom Chair. “I was surprised to say the least,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say but to speak from my heart and extend my sincere thanks and appreciation.” So many people came together and donated funds for Bennie to have a more suited piece of equipment to go out and race among his fellow trail blazers and friends.
With his new chair, he completed a half marathon trail race in Dec 2015 (finishing at 4:24:28), marathon trail race in Dec 2016 (finishing at 9:50:58), a 60-mile ultra- marathon and a 113.5 ultra-marathon. “I plan on breaking my record at the Snowdrop Ultra 55 with a goal of achieving 150 miles under the 55-hour cutoff time on December 30, 2017 through January 1, 2018,” Bennie said. Snowdrop Ultra 55 Hour Race and Relay is an annual race to run or walk as many laps as you can in the allotted time of 55 hours. This race benefits the Snowdrop Foundation that provides scholarships for college bound pediatric cancer patients and childhood cancer survivors while raising awareness and funding for continued research to cure childhood cancer. “The last two years my wife and I participated in this challenging race, which we will do annually because the Snowdrop Foundation does wonderful work,” Perez explains. “I’m hoping to save enough funds to purchase the upgraded kit to convert my regular Freedom Chair into a Forward in order to move faster through the more flat part of the trails and for a more comfortable ride.”
Bennie Jose Perez’s strength to endure pain and to compete comes from his strong faith in God and from the unwavering love and support of his wife, Amalia. He focuses his attention on creating a better quality of life in the present instead of dwelling on past struggles and disappointments, to maintain that Never Give Up attitude, never have excuses to pursue goals, and he strives to inspire others to do the same. Bennie is confident that when he continues to exhibit all of the qualities that made him a leader in the Marines, he will one day have the opportunity to represent the United States in uniform again, this time on the field of athletic contest.