Paul Totman has had more than his share of injuries and misfortunes in life - but once the 20-year military combat Veteran took up handcycling with the South Florida chapter of Achilles International, his life changed.
"It is the best thing to ever happen to me," he says of the organization that empowers individuals with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events in order to promote personal achievement.
The white-bearded 64-year-old Totman will be easy to spot when he joins nearly other 90 Achilles athletes who are signed up to compete in the FITTEAM Palm Beaches Marathon on Dec. 2. Forty Achilles athletes are enrolled in the 5K, and 50 in the Marathon and Half Marathon. The 2018 Achilles field will have a South Florida, Treasure Coast and Central Florida flavor, but international and out-of-state athletes will also compete.
Totman, a Palm Beach County resident, will be handcycling his 18th marathon (he has won three times) after joining the Achilles group just over a year ago. That he is back to participate in the FITTEAM Palm Beaches Marathon after an accident in last year's race exacerbated his injuries is a bit of a miracle.
Totman hit a curb and jolted his back and it wasn't until he reached the finish line that he realized how badly he was hurt. By nightfall Totman had lost all feeling below his neck. It would take eight weeks in Good Samaritan Medical Center for his swollen spinal cord to recover and some movement to return.
"I should have taken the hit and gotten into an ambulance," Totman said. "But I was too stubborn and wanted to finish the race."
Totman's multiple injuries date back to his 20 years in the military (1987-2007) while he was a member of the High Asset Protection Team for the United States Fifth Fleet. He was involved in US security operations during Desert Storm (1991), Desert Fox (1998) and Operation Enduring Freedom (2001).
Totman was injured in Kuwait in 1994 when his Harbor Protection Unit (HPU) was tasked with protecting oil rigs in the Gulf of Iraq. The HPU came under fire when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in his unit's 40-ft. boat, injuring Totman's legs. He was flown to Bahrain where he underwent multiple operations to repair the damage.
Totman returned to active duty but continued to have issues, especially with his damaged right knee. He had a steel knee replacement in 2009, two years after retiring from active duty.
In 2014, Totman was installing siding on his then-Big Pine Key home when the scaffolding broke, sending him plunging 35 feet to the ground and injuring his leg and spinal cord. He was airlifted to the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami where a pin was placed in his fibula and a plate in his femur. He right leg had to be amputated just above the knee in 2015 after his 17th surgery. The spinal cord injury he suffered in this race a year ago was his second, leaving him the ability to only feel pressure -but not touch - from his neck down.
Totman, who also actively struggles with PTSD, says that suicides are commonplace when Veterans can't handle all that life throws at them. He says he has lost "about 200 friends" since serving in military operations in the Middle East.
"Twenty-two veterans die a month from suicide because they fall into the void of the VA system," he says.
Totman's PTSD requires help from his service dog "Gatling," who is by his side when he fights the recurring night terrors that arise from his military time overseas.
"I'm a full-fledged PTSD patient, "says Totman. "When you have these terrors, you are living the same thing over and over again. It's exactly the same smells, tastes, and you are reliving that point in time. I've seen some pretty bad stuff.
"My dog will wake me up and then I know I'm in the real world. Reality isn't with me right away. I'm thinking 'Am I here or am I there?' I can't tell the difference. It is hard to distinguish what is reality and what is the past."
One of those who has provided additional support through Achilles is regional director Jacqui Kapinowski, the only individual in history to run, walk and compete in a racing chair in the FITTEAM Palm Beaches Marathon.
Kapinowski was an elite runner in her 20s before suffering from a rare neurological disorder that took away her ability to walk. In addition to being one of the most successful Paralympians on the planet, Kapinowski uses her experiences and the Achilles family to help others who struggle with their life situations.
"I was trying to get a bike through the VA," says Totman, a father of four, grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather of two. "They were taking a long time. They suggested I get a hold of Jacqui. The first time I met her she wanted me to try the bike out, and we went 29 miles. She's been my coach ever since. She and her husband have become like family to me."
Totman also credits Achilles super volunteer Mary Bryant with his easy transition to Achilles and handcycling. Bryant has been devoted to the group of disabled athletes-and especially the Freedom Team-for years. "She's done so much for me," he says. "Achilles gave me something to do that I never thought I could do."
Totman has always liked speed, and perhaps that's why he has met quick success in handcycling. "I was a Motorhead in high school," he says. "I liked fast moving vehicles. Harleys. King Cobras. Mustangs. Anything to do with motors."
He still drives a big pickup that he calls his 'Boy Toy.' Friends kid him and call it a 'Prius Killer.'
While speed and winning are important to Totman, the greatest blessing he has received from his new-found sport is his inclusion once again on a team, a family.
"The Freedom Team (Achilles' wounded military veterans) - you are a part of a family," he says. "They do so much to make things happen for you. My life changed when I found Achilles."