Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 5 a.m.
Hector Picard was making his rounds through Hollywood on a typical day of work in 1992 when something went terribly wrong.
The then-25-year-old electrician stepped into a fenced-off area to inspect a substation transformer -- a hulking, two-story-tall structure that processes electricity and distributes it to entire neighborhoods. Before Picard could react, 13,000 volts of electricity were surging through his body.
"It hit me through my right arm and blew up the top part of my foot as it went out," he recalls. "It also went through my left arm and out my left hip."
The jolt should have killed him. Thermal burns, an unimaginably painful injury that chars tissue from the inside out, forced doctors to perform more than five surgeries and amputate nearly all of his right arm and half of his left arm.
"I don't remember anything," he says. "It happened in Hollywood, and I woke up in a hospital in Gainesville... I was in a coma for about a month. I turned 26 in the hospital."
Recovery was long and adjusting to the new lifestyle grueling. But Picard trudged along. Now, two decades later, he's an aggressive and impressive athlete who has competed in more than 50 triathlons since 2009. This Friday, he'll embark on a muscle-scorching 1,500-mile bike ride from Fort Lauderdale to New York that he's looking to complete in less than three weeks, a task that would push most two-armed folks to the brink of insanity.
"There's been many times in my life where people tell me that I can't do something or that it's impossible," he says. "So I just do it to prove them wrong."
Picard, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents, is now a motivational speaker. And while he's a positive force, he doesn't sugarcoat anything.
He jokes about how awkward the dating scene was after the divorce from his first wife -- he met his current wife on match.com -- and doesn't hold back when explaining his frustrations in dealing with bike mechanics who said they couldn't make the necessary modifications for him to get back in the saddle. It's this whimsical combination of honesty, self-deprecating humor, and ingenuity that will be key in getting him up the coast.
"Living the way I do, I get frustrated all the time," he says. "I just got pissed off an hour ago. But it's how I handle that moment that's important."
Of course, being a double-amputee triathlete carries a unique set of challenges. To swim, he floats on his back and does a reverse breast stroke, relying on the strength of his legs to propel him through the water. Running, he says, is brutal. "I've never really liked running. It's still the hardest part for me."
Fortunately, this latest escapade, which Picard is doing to promote the I Will Foundation
, will see him on two wheels the entire time. His bike has some tweaks, including brakes that are mounted to the frame so he can press on them with his legs.
Still, there are dangers. Last year, he was hit by a mail truck while out on a ride -- he didn't pursue any legal action and finished out the remaining seven miles soaked in blood. Then, in October, while riding in Denver the day before he was to deliver a keynote speech, his front wheel caught a pothole and pitched him over the handlebars. "I actually nicked the bone on my kneecap," he says. "But the next day, I just went and did my thing."
Picard is acutely aware of his limitations and knows the trip to New York won't be flawless. He says he will fix all mechanical malfunctions by himself. Kneepads and a helmet will help cushion against the pavement should the need arise.
He plans on stopping about every hour to hydrate and load up on calories. Along the way, he'll be giving speeches at cities he passes through and letting other riders follow along. And, perhaps most nerve-wracking of all, there will be a camera crew documenting the entire trip for a forthcoming documentary.
"There are going to be ups and downs. I'll be pissed off, I'll be happy -- all the emotions are going to come out," he says. "And they're all going to be on camera."
Picard says that although he's known in the Broward area, he hopes the ride will expose him and his lifestyle to a wider audience -- an audience that has its own everyday struggles and may not be as resilient as he.
"A lot of the states I'll be going through, there's so much poverty. There are foreclosures and unemployment, and people are depressed," he says. "If I can go out there and lighten their attitudes and help them realize there's more to life than just money, it'll be worth it."
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