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Berenyi makes U.S. Paralympic Team

Former Chiefs player to represent U.S.A. in London

Berenyi makes U.S. Paralympic Team

Man rides bicycle.
Former Waubonsee baseball player Joe Berenyi will compete for the U.S. in the upcoming Paralympic Games.
man with bike
(Photos by Andrew Nelles Photography and Athletes By Design Cycling)

Berenyi makes U.S. Paralympic Team

What do you do when life throws you a curve? Oswego resident Joe Berenyi used to be the one throwing the curves as a left-handed pitcher for Waubonsee Community College in the late 1980s. He also hit a few of them as a part-time outfielder, even smacking three doubles in a game against Rock Valley College in 1989. Then suddenly in 1994 life threw him a proverbial breaking ball. In a life-altering construction accident, Berenyi lost his right arm, severely broke a leg and shattered his left kneecap, which had to be removed.

An athlete his whole life, Berenyi went several years after surgery without any sports in his life. But eventually the Aurora Central Catholic High School graduate decided it was time to start, not stop, spinning his wheels. So he began to ride the bike trails along the Fox River. “The competitiveness came back,” he says. The years of pain, suffering, sacrifice, determination and perseverance all culminated the last week of June when Berenyi made the U.S. cycling team at the Paralympic Road Cycling National Championships in Augusta, Georgia. The 43-year-old will join an elite group of athletes in London for the 2012 Paralympic Games from August 29 through September 9.

“It was a long-shot dream for me,” says Berenyi of making the team, which consists of six men and seven women in 11 sport classes. While it was his dream to go to London, his new goal is on “winning the medal. Just making it isn’t good enough. We want to do well. It’s all about competing.” If history is any indication, the team will be competitive. At the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, the U.S. won 14 medals in cycling, including five gold.

Only a year before his accident, Berenyi had begun racing at the age of 25. His determination to get back on a bike, to get back to something he loved, was strong. “The first time he tried to ride, it was soon after the accident,” Jill Berenyi, his wife of 16 years, recalled. “He fell off a stationary bike and really hurt himself.” He didn’t give up though, and went at competitive cycling with the same determination he had shown many times throughout his life. “He always gave his all to whatever he was doing,” his mother Dolores Berenyi declares. He excelled in baseball and football for the Chargers before playing two seasons on the diamond for the Chiefs. “That he has bounced back after the accident doesn’t surprise me,” states long-time Waubonsee head coach Dave Randall. “He was a quiet, tough player. And he’s used that competitiveness to excel in what he’s doing now.”

As he continued to progress in cycling the last few years, Berenyi won several gold medals in national competitions. “It kept me going on those tougher cold, wet days riding my bike outside or in the basement on the trainer,” Berenyi said. It also led to an invitation last year to the Paralympic training center in Chula Vista, California. With financial help from family and friends, Berenyi was able to be a part of a 10-day training program that specifically prepares Paralympic cyclists for competition. A little more than a year later he is set to make his Paralympic debut in just his second year of paracycling. “This is still new to me, but I figured I’d give it a shot, and this year I won,” said Berenyi.

Unlike most competitors, Berenyi does not wear a prosthetic limb. He rides using only his right hand on the handle bars. Berenyi competes on a two-wheel racer that is modified by Prairie Path Cycles in Batavia and Winfield, his primary sponsors. His bikes are equipped with electronic shifting gears to accommodate his needs. “All of the controls are on one side for shifting gears and the brakes have a cable splitter to one lever. But other than that, it is a standard bike,” he said.

Berenyi said cycling has strengthened his legs and has improved his walking capabilities. He said his “open day” workouts of 50 to 70 miles at average speeds of 22 mph generally are trips on the open roads to Morris, Plano, Newark and Plainfield, where there are fewer motorists. He rides 12-13 hours a week and will increase that to 16 hours a week during the summer. His wife said that his coach has added yoga and other exercises to his training regimen.

“I have never met anyone who is as dedicated, focused and works as hard as Joe,” proclaims Mike Farrell, co-owner of Prairie Path Cycles. “He does it with the support of his family and friends.”  The Batavia bicycle shop’s amateur cycling club, Athletes by Design (ABD), hosted a fundraiser recently with hopes of raising sufficient funds to cover the finances so that Berenyi’s wife and daughters, Tatum age 7, Gwen age 8 and Sydney age 10, will be able to join him in London. “I raise my daughters by example — there’s no quitting,” he said.

“Joe is just a super guy,” says Mary Johnson, a bartender and waitress at Elmer’s Doghouse Restaurant in Montgomery, which is across the road from the Fox River bike trail and where Berenyi is a regular patron. “He’s very determined. He’s always out on his bike. He’s very quiet, but he has a magnetic personality.” Jerry Jude, part-owner of Elmer’s, coached football for St. Rita of Cascia Catholic grade school in Aurora. Jude coached Berenyi from 5th through 8th grades. “In the 30 years I coached at St. Rita’s, he was the best running back I’ve seen; not the biggest, but the best," he said. "He’s a super young man.” And someone who clearly has made adjustments to the curve that was thrown to him.