Competitor fights cerebral palsy to complete triathlon

Gene Thomas and Manuel “Manny” Neikov, both Fairborn firefighters, and Courtney Harman, a Beavercreek firefighter, participated with Zbrizher at the Great Buckeye Challenge, a relay triathlon, held at Buck Creek State Park in Springfield.

Zbrizher, 21, comes from New Jersey and is a junior studying psychology and French. Zbrizher is nonverbal and unable to walk independently. She communicates by typing.

“My very first triathlon was amazing and ridiculous and unbelievable and wonderful beyond,” she wrote via e-mail.

The triathlon included a 1,000 meter swim, a 12.5 mile bike ride and a 5K run. Neikov completed the bike portion, Thomas completed the swim portion and Harman completed the run portion.

Zbrizher was tethered to Thomas for the swimming.

“She wore a specialized PFD (personal floatation device),” Thomas said. “It keeps her on her back and keeps her from rolling over, and it allows her to kick and use her arms.”

Zbrizher rode in a specialized bike/cart for the bike and run sections. The bike transitioned to a three-wheel cart for the run. Two firefighting unions, IAFS Fairborn Local 1235 and Beavercreek Local 2867, each donated $500 for the bike/cart.

“The rear tire went flat three times on the race, so Manny pulled over to some guy’s house and they fixed it with super glue and duct tape,” Thomas said. “Courtney had to push the cart for two miles with a flat.”

Thomas was inspired by an online video about Team Hoyt, which assists and encourages people with disabilities to get involved in activities. He and Zbrizher met after she needed an ambulance due to breathing trouble.

“I asked her if she would be interested in a triathlon and her eyes lit up,” Thomas said.

For Thomas, the most touching moment of the day came at the end of the race.

“At the finish, about 100 yards away, we took her out and held her up to keep her upright, and she finished on her own,” Thomas said. “We saw this as her race; we were just her support team. We were so motivated by her.”

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